Soviet immigrants serve taste of home in Charles Village

October 02, 1990|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Evening Sun Staff

The sign on the window says Unlimited Range, but this is really Irina's place. Her cafe in Charles Village is bright and cheery, and here you can get a freshly cooked Ukrainian meal prepared by Irina Barshay and her sister and mother, immigrants from the Soviet Union.

Irina is a petite, 30-year-old dynamo who opened the restaurant, catering service and carry-out last year. The great writers could rise from their graves and gather here and drink wine and ponder Irina for several evenings and still not capture her as sharply as an older gentleman in the neighborhood named Paul Colgan, who stops by regularly to see whether the ladies need anything from the store. He wrote:

Irina from Kiev is here to stay,

A gem of Ukraine, don't go away.

Black eyes sparkle with glee,

Dark hair so neat she's a joy to see.

Bright an' spicy but hard as nails.

7+ Get too smart get knocked on your tail.

Irina taped the verse to her refrigerator at the restaurant just as a parent displays a finger-painting at home. That's not surprising because Irina's cafe is homey and warm, and you might wind up getting your own coffee or clearing your table as you would at a close friend's house.

In the kitchen with Irina are her sister, Lyubov Gerasimenko, 38, who wears an apron that says, "Never trust a skinny cook," and their mother, Palmira Patlakh, a strong Ukrainian woman with a ++ lined, rugged face.

Kiev is where the family came from: mother, father, three daughters and two grandchildren. They came because the father in his heart was an artist, not a truck driver.

Mikhail Patlakh studied sculpture and ornamental plastering in school in his hometown of Kiev, capital of the Ukrainian Republic in the U.S.S.R. He worked in that craft until Nikita Khrushchev, then the Soviet dictator, decreed such work overindulgent.

"Any kind of art, any kind of individual expression, was suppressed," Irina says. "The government didn't want you to stand out as an individual."

So her father worked at anonymous jobs: taxi driver, truck driver, restaurant maitre d', ambulance driver. The doctor on the ambulance had a sister in Baltimore. The doctor and Irina's father in secret discussed leaving the Soviet Union.

"I think my dad got fed up and said 'to hell with this, I want to be a sculptor,' " Irina says. "My dad is a very curious soul. It doesn't apply, the saying, 'Curiosity killed the cat.' "

The doctor got out in the late 1970s, and then Irina's father applied to leave. If you were Jewish, as is the Patlakh family, you might get permission to emigrate if you had relatives in Israel.

The Patlakhs didn't, but they knew the right lies in their society of lies. Patlakh told Soviet officials he had a brother in Israel -- the doctor, who was no relation and who actually had come to Baltimore to join his sister.

The government gave Patlakh, his wife and their youngest daughter, Irina, permission to leave. They arrived in Baltimore in 1980. Irina's two sisters, who were married and had their own families, would have to wait seven years.

Irina, who was 19, and her parents had only about $500, and they couldn't speak a word of English. They moved in with the doctor and his sister and, eventually, through hard work and with the help of many people and social agencies, especially those that help Jewish immigrants, they stood on their own feet.

After working as a janitor and handyman, Irina's father satisfied his curious soul by finding a job at Giannetti Studio in Brentwood, Md., just south of College Park.

As an ornamental plasterer, he has worked on restoration projects at the U.S. Capitol and the Renwick Gallery in Washington, as well as on several buildings in Baltimore, including the First and Franklin Street Presbyterian Church at Park Avenue and Madison Street.

He recently sculpted a bust of Andrei Sakharov, the late Russian physicist and human-rights activist. Sakharov's widow, Yelena Bonner, is visiting the United States, and sometime this week, in a moment of great pride for an immigrant Soviet sculptor, Patlakh is scheduled to present the bust to Bonner.

He is happy with his new life and his home on a quiet street in Randallstown. Bob Giannetti, his boss, says that Patlakh from time to time marvels at something about this country -- usually something Americans take for granted, such as a simple but efficient tool -- and exclaims over and over again, "This is United States of America. This is United States of America."

"In one sentence," Giannetti says, "he is able to say, 'This is it.' "

This is it, too, for Irina. After a string of jobs, mainly with computers, she discovered that, like her father, she has an artistic bent.

Working at the London Fog plant in Eldersburg, she started making food for office parties. During lunch hours she read books at the library about entertaining and catering.

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