“So just remember,” Felix said cutting the half melted mozzarella on his Penne Fantasia managing to chip off a piece of pasta, grabbing both parts with his fork, now marinated with sauce, “in case of any problems, go to the Canadian embassy and wait for Ben Affleck.” We were having a four-person dinner on a November Saturday in a small and stuffy Italian restaurant in the heart of Heidelberg. The owner, a Sicilian man in his sixties with a haircut not much longer than my own, in a white shirt stained with grease and pasta sauce would personally deliver our orders, each accompanied with a “prego”. And as we laughed at his comment, Kathrin told us how excited she was to finally get to see Iran a land she had heard so much about and spent the last year researching on; reading books, watching documentaries and even learning the language. She had inferred that Iran was a special place and she was anticipating to experience that herself.
I landed in Iran on a cold December evening. We stepped off a delayed plane that had to make a landing in Turkey to get fueled up since Germany audaciously refused to give any Iranian airline fuel, made from the oil they buy from Iran I might add. I would like to say the midnight air was crisp and fresh as any late autumn night should be, but I’ll just proclaim my disappointment in the heavily polluted airport parking lot where we had to walk aisle after aisle to reach my father’s white car. It was brought to my attention by Kathrin two weeks later, in the same parking lot, that Iranians have a preference for white cars. It took her 30 seconds to realise something I hadn’t bothered to pay attention to in 26 years. I was convinced that spending the Christmas holidays in Iran would crack a break in the long frosty winter experience that I was having in Germany. I was to learn I had trusted the wrong sources . I experienced temperatures so low that led me to wonder if I still had my toes attached to my feet and was asked if someone had punched my face blue.
The trip was eye opening to say the least. Not only to Kathrin, but also to me, as I found myself in many a situation where I would see Iran from the eyes of a tourist as I explained aspects of the history and culture. I could attempt at a full-on description of my minor epiphany, but I’ll save that for my shrink. I did however leave my camera at home and walked the streets and museums with nothing but my iPhone. I was determined to take as many discreet pictures as I could and there is something about a camera that does not particularly scream discreet… (Oxymoron intended) I can announce that the thing that amazed Kathrin the most would be my appetite in that environment. Each time I devoured the food that was put in front me, she would repeat the sentence “I would’ve never thought you could eat this much, and actually enjoy it. I thought you hated food.” She was right, Iran was that special place. Where the food tastes better and politeness that can drive you insane is not only accepted, but encouraged. Tarof; a phenomenon you cannot learn or begin to understand unless you are dramatically exposed to it.
Just a few years ago I got seated next to two of my best friends from high school in the bus starting off at my hometown and dropping us off at Tehran. My mother was sitting next to us and for some reason did not complain about our giggles and constant conversation. This year without knowing or planning I found myself in the same situation with the same friends. It felt like nothing had changed as we reminiscent about teachers we admired and abhorred, our walk through the Baazar that protected us from the teeth-chattering cold in the winters of my hometown and head-itching sun rays in its early summers, munching on Pofaks (cheese puffs) and sipping on Takdaaneh pomegranate juice. The ladies in front of us, like my mother, didn’t seem to mind. As we got off the bus, my friends ushered me to a cubicle where I was supposed to hail a taxi. For some reason they believed that I needed to be guided, telling me I should ask the driver how much it will cost to take me to my destination, in this case my aunt’s place in the north west of Tehran. I did as I was told, not because I didn’t know beforehand, but merely out of politeness towards my friends with a splash of appreciation for their worry. The driver, a man in his early thirties, gave me an estimate and reassured me he wouldn’t charge me an extra Toman from what would be on the taxi meter display. The estimation was three times the amount of I was used to paying each time I took a taxi from the same point of departure to my aunt’s place. I asked about the sudden rise of cab fares which led to a conversation that accompanied us to my aunt’s doorstep. During the thirty-minute conversation, while he did his best to zigzag between the cars in Niyayesh highway, I learned that he had spent a few years in Karlsruhe and Kaiserslautern and had two sisters living in Mannheim. He explained how he could never dream of going back to live in Germany and how Iran was “something else”. I silently praised his admiration for a land that had forced him to drive a taxi as a second job while holding a degree in IT. As I dug through my handbag fishing for my big red purse, he pulled out my suitcase from the boot and carried it to the building’s entrance. Both gestures were unnecessary in my book. I made a note to check how much was displayed on the taxi meter before climbing out of the car. To my ultimate surprised he refused to take the fare. “You are our guest” he kept saying. “But I’m not” I replied to his first attempt. “I’m just as at home as you are.” His tarof skills were much more sophisticated than mine, since I was left standing with the cash in my hand, smiling from east to west. I later recited the story to a friend in the form of a Whatsapp text. “That would never happen in Germany” the German friend concluded. My father strongly suggested that I find his sisters’ Physiotherapiepraxis in Mannheim, taking along a gift upon my arrival in Germany… Now that was some hardcore practice of tarof…
Kathrin arrived a fortnight after me, right after Christmas and just in time for some homemade wine to be dug out to celebrate New Year’s. We spent a few days sightseeing in Tehran. From museums (The Treasury of National Jewels being by far the most breathtaking) and palaces, to malls, restaurants and mountain hiking trails, my cousins and I were dedicated to showing her the real Iran.
We took her to Isfahan, the city that proudly holds my favourite place in the world; the Naghshe Jahan Square. I fell in love with this rectangular plaza that is surrounded by Persian blue monuments, mosques and palaces hugging a polo court. There was one thing that robbed a bit of the beauty off of that town; the harsh, unforgiving cold. I found myself explaining several times that Isfahan is much more beautiful in spring, when the skies are blue and you actually enjoy spending time outside. I needn’t to.
Kathrin found the city as remarkable as I had described before we decided to visit it in minus temperatures. I ended up donning a big unflattering grey coat my father keeps in the boot of his car on an off chance of getting stranded in the middle of nowhere with a flat tire during winter. I refuse to say I looked anything other than dashing…
What was expecting us, was nothing we were expecting. The salt lake was completely frozen. Whiteness dominated the scenery. It was difficult to distinguish the line where the sky and lake collided. My mother, deciding her shoes were not meant for walking on ice stayed in the car where the heater remained on full blast for the next hour while we trotted on the frozen lake…The last week of our stay hosted us with temperatures as low as -17. On the day the weather app on our phones displayed that temperature, we decided to go to a salt lake not too far from my hometown.
I must clarify that I am allergic to cold weather. I do not only despise it, but I am physically and emotionally allergic to it. I turn into a grumpy smurf, blue on the outside and in. The idea of driving from a cold mountainous town to a colder desert didn’t tickle my fancy at all, yet I surrendered. It was better than sitting at home. So we layered up on the attire and with my cousin, a traveler who cannot stay in one place for longer than a few days, squeezed next to us in the back of our family car we drove to Kavir-e-Meyghan.
My cousin had come prepared. With steamy coffee in his thermos and chocolate chip cookies in the lunch box stuffed in his backpack, he offered a caffeine redemption. The hot strong coffee warmed our guts and got our blood pumping. A photographer, a bearded man with a Canon and a zoom lens not particularly suitable for a day like that, must’ve smelt the aroma, for he walked to our little gang, gave us a bar of chocolate each and asked us if we were photographers entering for the contest on the immigrant birds flying over the lake from Siberia. We answered negative to his question and offered him milk-free coffee.
I share a birthday with one of the most iconic figures in the world. It’s a blessing and a curse really, no one ever forgets it, but simultaneously the spotlight has to be shared, and there’s no competing with Jesus. The last couple of birthdays I spent in a gloomy winter-stricken Heidelberg where everyone had abandoned that lively town, escaping to the warmer comfort of their homes where they prepared cookies, eggnog and presents. So the tradition of Half-Birthday came into being, making me explain the intent to anyone who was invited. On the eve of the 25th of June, just a few days into summer, I would gather friends for half a birthday cake and some drinks (we decided to keep the drinks the traditional way; full. No one wants to order half a drink). This year as I decided to leave the German winter and with my pre-birthday presents in my suitcase, I boarded a plane to Tehran, where I was promised a warmer December. I was mislead. The winter in Iran, although sunny, was not warmer than what I had experienced in Heidelberg, hence my disappointment.
That didn’t take long as on the eve of my birthday, I received a notification on my phone telling me that there had been a video posted on my wall, with all of my family tagged in it. I watched, with teary eyes, as my cousins from across the globe said happy birthday to me in the funniest, most heart warming ways I could imagine. All of this had been organised and produced by my baby sister who proved once again that she can make the impossible happen. With everyone’s busy schedules and the terrible speed of internet there, she managed to make the most beautiful birthday present I could ever dream of, all in the middle of her university final exams. This birthday will be one I shall never forget. With a present made up of all the faces I love… Take that Jesus!
Our stay proved that not only are we prone to gaining some extra kilos after feasting on Persian dinner tables, but so are our suitcases. (Four kilos later, I had gone up a cup size and had managed to get the “there’s something different about you” glow in my face, leading to people’s questions of “have you done something to your hair? You look different.”). Packed with anything from Sangak bread to Labaneh cheese, to Fatir and even patties that my mother had prepared and left in the freezer overnight , our suitcases were slightly chubby, so chubby they would get bullied had they been female characters in a teen flick. To our luck, the Iran Air employee, a handsome dark haired chap (aren’t they all? Dark haired, I mean) exchanged a few smiles and comments more on the flirtatious side than the friendly one, and without mentioning anything wished us a nice flight. “So that’s ok?” I asked giving him a confused look before directing my glance towards the carry on that he had allowed to be shipped on with the luggage. “Allow me to give you some advice,” he said “when they don’t ask you about something, don’t bring it up. This is Iran.”
“So no run-ins with Ben Affleck?” Felix asked me before I turned off my phone for take-off.
“None” I replied knowing I had disappointed him by not giving him an Argo ending, still very much despising what that film represented. Little did I know I would come home to see that he had watched Homeland’s third season and had quite a number of questions starting with “What the F***?”…
I returned to a a surprisingly warm Heidelberg where the thought of riding my bike in January didn’t make me cringe and I could leave my window open for more than five minutes. I guess my winter was really split in two parts, cold and freezing… Yet, I am not complaining.
And although I am calling Germany home these days, Iran will remain to be my Bohemia…
(You can find thr aforementioned pictures in the Fotografee section right at the top of my blog, for a more vivid description of my trip…)