Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Ro-more trouble than it's worth-mance

Part two

As I’ve said before, I’ve never been much of a romantic but growing up I had always had this fantasy that one day someone I did not know, would come up to me and say, ‘It’s you’ (or something similar) and so basically just by looking at me he would realise that I was the girl of his dreams.

I was working as a cashier at Sainsbury’s at the time and one afternoon a little Spanish chap who bought a packet of salt and vinegar crisps and a can of Apple Tango, also declared his love to me.
Watching the Spanish Romeo being escorted out of the supermarket by one of the security guards, it suddenly occurred to me that there was a major flaw in my fantasy; normal people did not go around telling people that they did not know from Adam that they were in love with them, only creeps and weirdoes did this sort of thing.

As the supermarket closed that night and I made my way across the car park to the bus stop, I saw the little Spanish guy in the distance, standing by the exit. I guess it was sweet that he had waited out there for me for about five hours but it was also scary because it was dark and while I had been faffing around inside; looking for some change to buy a can of coke, everyone else had left the supermarket and now there was only us two left. The way I saw it there were three possibilities with this guy:

1- He was a loser with no life who could spare five hours of his Saturday night to stand around supermarket car parks
2- He was a sweetheart and a hopeless romantic who had seen past my spotty face and my greasy hair jammed in a ponytail and my very unflattering, nylon cashiers’ uniform and had fallen madly in love with me
3- He was a psychopath, about to kidnap me and hack me to pieces

I desperately felt around in my bag for anything that could be used against him in case he turned out to be the psychopath. He had already started walking towards me and so I grabbed the only thing that vaguely resembled a weapon, a biro which I held very tightly with the tip coming out of one side of my fist and imagined how I would stab him with it repeatedly (if he tried to attack me) Norman Bates style, eee eee.
As he got closer, I realised that there was also a fourth possibility with this guy,

4- He was a vampire slayer!

Or should I say I was hoping that was what he was because otherwise it meant that for no particular reason, while waiting outside for the love of his life to finish her shift, Prince Charming (feeling a little peckish) had decided that the best thing to snack on at this precise moment in time was what from the smell I would say, a bucketful of raw garlic.
‘Khello’ he said.
I think he was smiling but I can’t be sure as by then my eyes had started watering from the garlic fumes, making it hard for me to see.
‘Hello’ I said and started walking towards the bus stop, fast.
‘You no khave a car?’ He sounded like he was horrified even by the thought of me not having a car but I think it might have just been his accent that was making him sound that way.
‘You go wis bus?’

By the time we got to the bus stop, I was pretty much sure that this garlic muncher was quite harmless but it was still nice to see that there were other people at the bus stop as well.
Now at the time I used to smoke and one of my greatest pleasures was to get a can of coke from the machine and have that with a cigarette as I waited for my bus after I’d finished work.
I had taken out my cigarette and was looking for my lighter. ‘Not good for your mouth’ said the man who could wipe out an entire tribe of vampires with one breath, disapprovingly. I didn’t know exactly what he meant by that but in an effort to try and reduce the garlic fumes coming my way, I had already decided not to engage him in any more conversation than was necessary, so I didn’t ask. I put my cigarette back though and decided against lighting it because my bus was approaching and also because even though I was almost certain that garlic was not flammable, the air felt so thick with it at the time that I couldn’t help thinking, what if.

Long story short, it did not work out between me and the Vampire Slayer. Call me shallow but I have my standards and even though I appreciate a good party trick as much as the next person, I still can’t bring myself to date a man who can turn a French stick into garlic bread; simply by breathing on it.

End of part two

Friday, May 26, 2006

Ro-more trouble than it's worth-mance

Part one

Last night, munching our way through our big plates of bangers and mash with onion gravy, in our jimjams, I got thinking about romance.
I’ve never been the most romantic person in the world but even so if in my teenage years someone had told me that after six years of marriage the idea of romance for my husband and I would be to say to each other, ‘I wouldn’t come in here if I were you darling, I’ve just dropped one of those chemical ones.’ I would not have believed them.
But to tell you the truth now I’m more than happy with this arrangement. My romantic life for the most part, has only ever been a series of mishaps which I have always thought I could very easily have done without.
Take this for example. This guy I knew a bit from here and there, once invited me to go for a walk with him in a field.
When he arrived, I noticed that he was dressed very smartly and had a picnic basket with him that had a bottle of wine and two glasses inside. I was shocked because I didn’t fancy him in any shape or form and had no idea that this was some sort of date, but then again since there was a definite lack of romance in my life at the time, I thought a little bit of field, river, sunset and wine might do me some good.
As we entered the field, we realised that we weren’t the only ones who had thought of lazing away a summer afternoon by a river in a field; at least twenty cows had come up with the same idea. What’s more, they had arrived sometime before us and had picked the best spots for themselves. There weren’t that many of them really but as if by magic, they had managed to cover the whole field in cowpats, making it hard for us to walk around without putting our foot in one, let alone find a big enough manure-free area to put down our picnic blanket.
You could tell the poor guy was getting quite agitated; this clearly was not the romantic setting that he had hoped for. Trying to make him feel better I said, ‘It’s not very nice around here anyway, come on let’s go sit closer to the river’ and led the way. Next thing I heard a loud shriek from behind me, as my elegantly dressed companion slipped on a cowpat and a splash, as he fell into the river.
Now here’s the part that I’m truly ashamed about; without giving it a second thought, I started running by the side of the river as fast as I could, keeping one eye on the picnic basket and thinking up ways to rescue it. It wasn’t until I had to do an emergency stop about fifty meters down (as two cows had blocked my way) that I realised my instincts had got the better of me and had resulted in me showing my true colours by putting all my energy into chasing after what was most important to me i.e. the bottle of wine, when what I should have done was to give my injured date a hand and help him out of the river.
We have not spoken ever since.

End of part one

Tune in again in a few days for the part two of Ro- more trouble than it's worth–mance.
Here’s a teaser:

My worst ever romantic experience however was definitely this one, mainly because it came disguised as my ultimate romantic fantasy which was to have someone I’ve never seen before, come up to me and say, ‘It’s you’ meaning it’s you that I’ve been looking for all my life and now that I’ve found you I will never let you go and la la la (by which I mean all the rest of the things he meant by saying ‘its you’ and not that he would suddenly burst into song or anything like that. Saying that I must admit sometimes when I was feeling particularly cheesy or had just seen a musical, he would be singing and doing a little dance and all)…

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Kalleh Pacheh (head and trotters)

One of the things I love about Iran is that you can never get so chicken-nuggetly away from your dinner to forget where it comes from. Here in England if you don’t like the idea of cute little lambs being slaughtered, you can very easily walk into a supermarket and pick up a pack of lamb shops, neatly arranged in a cellophane tray and pretend that like chickpeas that actually have nothing to do with chicks, lamb chops have nothing to do with lambs either and essentially grow on trees.
In Iran however things are very different. There are some supermarkets around now but since there are not that many of them, most people still prefer to shop in their local stores. Being squeamish and shopping for meat in Iran, do not go together. If you are one of those people that like to pretend that lamb chops grow on trees, then you are probably better off becoming a vegetarian since the first time you walk into a butcher’s shop and see every body part of sheep from fillets to shoulders to livers to kidneys to brains being proudly displayed on trays in giant refrigerators along with their trotters and their skinned, smiling heads (with their big eyes staring back at you) decorated with some plastic parsley, any illusions you might have had about what meat comes from where, will be totally shattered.
Even though confronting my dinner’s head has always made me feel a little uneasy, I absolutely love the idea of every part of a slaughtered animal being used and nothing going to waste.

One of the most memorable meals I had on my last trip to Iran was the Kalleh Pacheh (head and trotters) we had in Tajrish on our way back from the mountains one Thursday. I’d had Kalleh Pacheh many times before but I had always had it at home and never in an actual kalleh pacheh restaurant.
It had been my idea to have kalleh pacheh for lunch but as we walked in and the steam from the three sheep heads boiling away in the special pan hit me and I saw those six melting eyes and those three toothy grins, I was ready to run out screaming.
Meanwhile my dad who had already decided that the bread the kalleh-paz (head boiler) was going to give us was not going to be eatable and had already unsuccessfully tried to buy some bread on our way there by hurling himself out of the taxi and into a bread shop at the traffic lights, had popped into the kebab shop next-door in search of some fresh bread and having for some reason come back empty-handed again, was confronted by one of the kalleh-paz guys who had become extremely offended by my dad’s lack of trust in his bread. As my dad did his usual hovering around the place, poking his head here and there, (as though he was trying to secure an escape route when in reality he was only putting off sitting down since for some reason he can’t stay still for too long) he was chased around by the kalleh-paz guy who incessantly spoke of the freshness of his bread and got more and more wound up as my husband also entered the discussion by offering to go to the bread shop at the other side of the roundabout.
As the bread wars continued, I finally managed to pull myself together and so my mum and I went and sat down.
The man’s bread did actually turn out to be quite good and after we had each confirmed his bread’s freshness, he went over to the boiling heads and trotters pot to bring our lunch of face-meat, trotters, two tongues and one brain.
While my dad’s bread brawl opponent arranged the pieces of face-meat on plates and using a ladle, very theatrically let the juices run over each piece of meat, his colleague very coolly broke the jaws of two sheep heads (by putting his hands on either sides of the jaws and pulling forcefully in opposite directions) to extract the tongue and the brain.
I had been the one who had ordered the brain but now that it was about to be put in front of me, going over my last memory of sheep brain, I was beginning to get worried.

As a child I had always liked brain but since I’d left Iran, I had not had it and so one time when I’d gone back, I’d said to my mum that I quite fancied having some brain. Which in English might sound like a bit of a crazy thing to say to your mother but in Farsi is quite normal and can get replies such as ‘Yeah alright then, we’ll pick up a couple on our way back home today.’ Which we did. We picked up two fresh brains from the butcher’s which were dropped into a clear plastic bag and handed to me. It wasn’ta pretty sight and to complete the horror, some blood had got into the bag with them as well. I was feeling very nauseous but I still managed to carry them all the way home with a little help from Girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes
Snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes
Silver white winters that melt into springs
And a few others of my favourite things.
When we got home, naively thinking that the grim part was over, I pleaded with my mind to somehow forget the image of the two brains bobbing in the shallow pool of blood in that plastic bag or if that was not possible, maybe just not make the connection between that horrid image and the tasty, mushy, cream-cheesy type stuff I was going to have later that night.
Little did I know that a few minutes later, as I walked into the kitchen, I would witness a scene that would not only as we say in Farsi, put the other brain image in its pocket (meaning that was nothing compared to this) but also become one of my top five all time craziest things I have ever seen in my life.
As I walked into the kitchen, I was faced with what I can only describe as Hannibal Lector’s dream punch. The two brains were now swimming around in a big bowl full of water (made pink from the blood) with some ice!
This was certainly a far cry from all those times I had been called out as a child to have some of the nice, white, gooey stuff which I would smear on pieces of bread with a few drops of lemon juice without giving much thought to its original form or where it had come from.
As I struggled to stop myself from fainting, my mum who had taken all my staring at the brains without saying a word as a sign of interest in the art of brain boiling, came and picked up one of the brains and in her usual smiley manner said, ‘I really like this part. If you put the brains in some icy cold water, you can then come and pick out one end of the veins and peel them all away in one.’ Or something along these lines. I can’t be sure about anything that happened in those few minutes as I was too busy concentrating on standing up. But I think she also said something like, ‘It looks like a little net at the end.’ And it did as well. And I have not been able to look at a hairnet the same way ever since.
Needless to say, that night I did not have any brain on account of all the weird images in my head. Now many years later, I was about to make my peace with brain.
And it was really nice actually. The only slightly dodgy thing about it was that my brain was brought to me covered in cinnamon which is really the last thing I would think to put on a brain and it really should be the last thing too since it didn’t really go with it. Saying that, the cinnamon did cover all the veins which was probably a good thing and might hopefully help with my hairnet phobia as well.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Shirin’s report on the streets of Tehran

On Driving

Some people agreed and some disagreed with me on this while I was in Iran but I really thought people’s driving had improved a lot in Tehran. I’m not saying all the cars were stopping on zebra crossings to let pedestrians go past or anything like that but studying the faces of a lot of drivers, I did come to the conclusion that they no longer took any pleasure in running their fellow citizens over either and unlike previous years, they no longer looked as though they were actively searching for distracted pedestrians to knock down.

Another sign of very good driving for me came in the form of a man who before changing lanes in the motorway, indicated! Ok so maybe he didn’t actually change lanes at the end and decided it was best to just drive on with the line in-between his wheels rather than with his wheels between the lines but the important thing is that he indicated even if his indicating had been a little premature and before he had made his mind up about which lane he actually wanted to be in. So the man in the white Pride on Hemmat Motorway on the 26th of April this year at approximately five thirty in the afternoon, I salute you.

On road safety

I really felt like a lot had changed in the streets of Tehran since last year. For one, drivers and front passengers wore seatbelts! This also means that taxis are now only allowed to take four passengers instead of five since it’s practically impossible for two people to sit on the front passenger seat and wear a seatbelt. Saying that I must admit I’m surprised that taxi drivers have not yet found a way to get around this little problem by for example asking the smaller front passenger to sit on the bigger front passenger’s lap and hold the seatbelt over both of them.

Another safety measure taken by the government is that motorcyclists are now all made to wear crash helmets.
How you ask? And you ask a very good question too. How on earth a government manages to make a people who use motorcycles to move their whole family (consisting of one wife, two children, one grandmother) and one ladder, from A to B, to suddenly become safety conscious and wear helmets?
I have decided to give the answer to this question in the form of a riddle: How many Pasdars (morality police) does it take to teach a motorcyclist that getting on a motorcycle without a helmet is dangerous?
The answer is, Three.

You take one long stretch of good old Tehran road and put three Pasdars on it at about fifty meter intervals. You arm the first Pasdar with a regular sized sign that in big, red letters says ‘STOP’. You arm the second Pasdar with the exact same sign, only bigger. The third and last Pasdar who should really be the most athletic one as well, gets no stop signs at all, instead you must provide him with a great big baton.
Before we go any further let me just confess that unfortunately I never got a chance to witness this amazing helmet awareness process myself since by the time I had arrived, all motorcyclists had already been made aware of the dangers of riding with their heads exposed and had all gone and bought shiny new helmets for themselves. Here I’m only repeating what Kamyar’s friend, Afshin told us about this very effective course of action.
As the first Pasdar on the road sees a carefree, helmet-free motorcyclist coming towards him, he pulls out his stop sign and waves it in front of the rider in order to make him stop.
If the rider stops, he gets fined heavily for having broken the law so he decides to ignore the Pasdar with the median sized stop sign and speeds past him.
A few meters away however, the second Pasdar is waiting with his even bigger sign. Again the motorcyclist ignores the stop sign and zooms past the Pasdar saying to himself, ‘Even Saddam Hussein and his army could not make us wear helmets. We went off to the war wearing nothing but a headband that said ‘Ya Mahdi’. Now who are you to make us wear helmets in our own country at the time of peace?’
Meanwhile the third and last Pasdar gets ready with his baton and when the motorcyclist reaches him, he is presented with a physical stop sign that sends him flying in the air by whacking him off his motorcycle as he rides past.
Before landing in the middle of the road, the man makes a promise to Allah that if he gets out alive, from that moment on he will wear his crash helmet at all times even when in bed or in the shower.

If this story is true as Afshin swore it was, then I’m very proud of our government that has not only made our streets safer, but has also managed to take the notion of tough love to a whole new level.

If you are wondering about the guy in the above picture and why he is not wearing a helmet, I must say in his defence that he is of course exempt from this law as the super-safety-conscious guy that he is, he only ever rides on the pavement.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Home sweet home. Computer sweet computer. Broadband sweet broadband. But most of all bed sweet bed. O how I’d missed our bed. Somewhere between annoying Zeinab Sisters in Imam Khomeini airport mistaking my lavashak (dried fruit pure) for hash, drinking lukewarm coffees, being trapped in a plane with a woman who had emptied a whole bottle perfume on herself (this was so bad that for the fist time in my life I was actually thankful when another one of my fellow passengers let one go), falling sleep curled up and freezing on metal chairs in Baku airport and the two hour bus journey from Gatwick to Oxford, I had totally lost the will to live but crawling into our soft, warm bed last night, made all of that go away. It was one of the most pleasurable experiences of my life. Twelve hours of asleep and several pieces of toast with cups of tea and coffee later, I’m starting to feel normal again.

It’s both nice and sad to be back. I cried this morning and I’ve had a lump in my throat that changes size depending on what I’m doing or thinking of. Pulling out a bag of dried dill left over from my mum’s dill and broad beans meatballs; the lump gets Big. Watching an episode of Creature Comforts; it gets small. Seeing a piece of unpublished writing by my dad that he gave to me to keep; Big. Reading it; very small. Getting into my prison style pyjamas and lying on our sofa with Kamyar in his favourite shirt with the elbow areas missing; small. Seeing my dead plants; Big.
It’s ok to be sad though and I don’t mind it really because I know it’ll go away in a couple of days and I’ll be right as rain.
Stay tuned for my report on Iran that I will post in a few days time.