Friday, October 26, 2012

The North

This morning we left early, packed ourselves into the car, 3 thick in the back with stuff filling all the backseat foot space; my favorite way to travel! We drove north, through mountains and around extreme hairpin turns.  We made a pit stop halfway for soup. Eventually the mountains started to show greenery and glimpses of the Caspian peeked through the trees. And finally we arrived in Motelghu and my dad's apartment here. It's on the 7the floor, overlooking the Caspian “Sea” (its actually the largest lake in the world) and the mountains; its two blocks from the sea. The apartment is filled with light and is calm and peaceful. I can feel the lines in my face relaxing, away from the endless traffic, noise, and pollution of Tehran. 

The town has several names: Motelghu is the most common. It was a very small village with just a cluster of houses until during the time of the Shah, they built a casino here. The Casino was called Motelghu, and the town grew and adopted this name. It is a very popular vacation spot during the high season, and the only road north is 100 years old and very narrow, so the traffic can be intense. 

We took a stroll through town the first evening. The beach is dotted w/small structures that have a small open floor with a carpet and a plastic roof. Couples and friends sit in these and smoke hookah or drink tea while looking out on the ocean. There was also a little shack area for the fisherman. We bought some fruit and vegetables, and visited the chicken man. His shop was open on all sides and had a small desk, freezer, and chopping table in the side. When we arrived, was busy having tea with his previous customer who put town his tea glass and collected his chicken when Ame Pari requested her order. The chicken man grabbed a bagged whole chicken out of a small freezer, and using the small side table he alternated between using a long, flat blade and a curved, sycle blade to quickly and deftly chop up the chicken into small pieces, removing the unsavory bits to a separate bowl. He bagged it up for us, hosed down the table and we were on our way.

Traveling home

The journey home was quite epic. After packing up the kitchen and everything else we'd brought, we stuffed ourselves in the car again and dad parked somewhere and ran inside on an errand. Which is when Ame Pari realized that she'd lost her wallet somewhere the night before when we were strolling around. We'd been to the bakery, the vegetable store, the chicken man and the olive store that night. Unfortunately it was now Saturday, which is like Sunday in the west; everything is closed. Still we made a good faith attempt. The bakery was open but they hadn't seen the wallet. The olive store was closed but the real estate agent next door told us that the olive woman's father in law works at the post office, so we went there and were able to call her. She hadn't seen it. Finally we gave up and hit the road. We made one pit stop along the way at the Hotel Nazia, where Maman used the bathroom (and then we all snuck in to use it).  Our next stop is the small port town Anzali. It is the main port for Russian freighters, and there was one heading out as we arrived.  Maman rested on a bench while we strolled on the boardwalk, passing small boat rentals and many small cats. 

Then we went on to Rasht, another city in the north where my dad had had his first job after finishing school. They brought us flatbread, chunks of raw onion, walnuts, fava beans, strained yogurt, olives in a walnut/pomegranate sauce and female caviar. Whatever that means.  We ordered a kabob and chicken, (which came with rice of course) and dug in. Then another epic 6 hours in the car we finally arrived back in Tehran.

Around town and back home

Dad says that he thinks 90% of Iranians don't like the government here, 80% in rural areas and villages. He said that he speaks against it every chance he can get, and that people tell him he's crazy to talk like that. He says, unless his life is in danger he'll say what he thinks. Like father, like daughter....

Riding the subway is also fascinating. The first two “wagons” are women only, and the rest are ostenisbly for men but women can ride there too. We rode during rush hour today and people packed in so tightly you couldn't move! The signs are also quite delightful. Look closely at the one in the middle; it cautions women against getting their chador or manteau caught in the escalator. We were in the mixed-gender car during a particularly jam-packed time and the other woman next to me took it upon her self to keep me steady as the car rocked as there was no where for me to hold on. I also spotted two men holding hands, very loosely, on the escalator. When they got off they continued this way, gently clasping fingers. I can't imagine what it must be like to be gay here; doubtless incredibly stressful. Dad says this is very common for men and they are probably not gay.  

We walked to Dad's music school where he takes Tar lessons to see about getting a violin lesson while I'm here, and we walked around the neighborhood where Dad did his last year of High School. He grew up in Kermanshah, a small rural village a few hours from Tehran. He never thought he would leave Kermanshah, but that last year his sister Ame Pari was in Tehran in school and possibly going to get divorced. So Maman, Dad, and Amu Said came to set up house with her and dad did his last year of High School in Tehran. He told me that right away he realized that he hadn't learned anything in the last 3 years, and that if he was going to be able to go to University he would need to study hard and pass the test. He'd never been a good student but now he worked hard and managed to pass the test! We also walked by Amu Bagher's school, which is a historic site.

Dad's school

Bagher's school

Amubagher's school

My cousin Farshad (Ame Pari's son) and his wife Benafsheh arrived today. They live in LA, and the last time I saw them was over 20 years ago. They are both so sweet and also fluent in English! After dinner tonight, everyone sat around telling funny stories over the customary dessert, fruit and tea. One story had them all nearly doubled over in stitches and Benafsheh took pity on me to explain that when Persian women fly internationally, they always choose to use the wheelchair because then they don't have to know their gate, etc., they are just delivered to where they need to go by an airport attendant. Even though they are totally able-bodied, most of them choose this option for the ease of not having to deal with the chaotic airport traffic, finding the gate, etc.. Dad says that at the gate, there are often 40 women lined up in their wheelchairs.

And, it turns out, Ame Pari, my spunky 73 year old climbing-trees-in-high-heels super aunt....
Your Ame Pari when she came to visit us 20 years ago, she arrived in a wheelchair!” and Ame Pari looked over at us from the sink with that impish grin and twinkle in her eye, and in her delightfully thick Persian accent exhuberantly exclaimed “Free ride!”

Dad also recounted many of the stories that my Agha (grandfather) would always tell. He died about 4 years ago and I feel a little devasted to not have gotten to spend more time with him before that. But I can see that here, the way to keep those who have died alive is by telling their stories and laughing as you would if he were here telling it.


Many women here wear the full chador: A large, flowy black garment that is floor length, covers the head, has arms for the hands, and is open in front. It is held closed under the chin. I even saw someone today who wore gloves with her chador “so that no one will see her hands” Ame Pari told me. Here in the cutting edge northern part of Tehran, there are also many women who push every fashion limit placed on them by the government. And so we have the opposite extreme: loose, brightly covered wraps with a small belt, sexy shoes w/open toes, and my favorite; the hair. There is an acceptable amount of hair that can show in the front of the scarf. But the edge is to make a big bun and put a big flower or something underneath it so that the hair is very big, and then delicately perch the scarf over the bun, as far back as possible, so that the entire front part is uncovered. TONS of makeup is absolutely the norm. In the grocery store this evening, I found this sign reminding women to wear the head scarf, and this woman who is pushing every restriction to the limit.

Today I spent a bunch of time walking around the city with dad. I started doing some street photography, taking pictures with the camera hanging around my neck while walking around. I am still endlessly fascinated by the variations on the dress code. There is the full chador and the special head scarf that provides maximum coverage (often required at places of employment or for student uniforms). Then there is the slightly pushed back scarf. Dad says that in the old days, women were supposed to wear black or dark colors, and many still do. Then there are those who push this limitation, as well. And then there is of course the ubiquitous post-op nosejob. 

Full chador