Leaping Thought Wednesday (Iran Part 4)

Conservatively dressed women admire the ceiling of a mosque in Isfahan.

This is what held their attention so raptly.

Before going to new places, sometimes even when I visit old ones, I always consult travel books as well as the internet to learn more about my destination. What I often discover runs along practical lines, where to sleep, where to eat, how to get around and what to see. Sometimes however, I discover a little more beyond the obvious, things like: when not to visit, what not to eat, what locales to avoid and why something touted as a worthwhile expenditure of my time might not be so worthwhile after all. Rarely though, do I encounter the kind of tidbit that doesn't necessarily conform to these expected categorizations. Those little illuminative nuggets gleaned only via on-site living and traveling, collected through experience or learned from mistakes.

To give you an example of what I mean, let me tell you about the time I visited a place called Carlsbad (modern day Karlovy Vary) in the Czech Republic. In its 19th century heyday, Carlsbad replaced places like Bath in England as a spa playground to which the rich and the aristocratic would travel to for curative rests. It was and still remains famous for its thermal spring waters and because people like Antonín Dvořák once lived there. Lovely to see I was told and I found that statement to be true until drinking the famous healing waters glued me to my unlovely hotel toilet seat for the next two days. No guidebook had thought to mention that it had purgative effects.

If I put my mind to it, I suppose that I could really could go on and on with these kinds of trial-by-fire travel anecdotes. Lord knows I've accumulated some memorable, if embarrassing tales in my years of going places but, there is no need to gross you out unduly and I must move on to today's Leaping Thought Wednesday. I do so hope the powers that be take note of this invaluable and spy-worthy information that is surely unusual to us but not to native Iranians.

A spice and nut merchant at the baazar in Tehran.

1. In Iran, Saturday is Monday and Sunday is Tuesday. People work over the span of our weekend and continue to do so until our Thursday afternoon when they wrap up school and jobs early enough to enjoy their full Friday rest. Yep, only a one day weekend for them after a six day work and school week. The Saturday is called Shambe and every day following Saturday until Thursday is termed as follows - Day one after Saturday, day two after Saturday, day three after Saturday and so on until the Friday which is the only day of the week called differently, Jomeh. So, basically if you know how to count up to five in Farsi, you already know how to say the days of the week.

Shambe - Saturday
Yek (1) Shambe - Sunday
Do (2) Shambe - Monday
Se (3) Shambe - Tuesday
Chahar (4) Shambe - Wednesday
Panj (5) Shambe - Thursday
Jomeh - Friday

Consider this your first lesson in Farsi.

Pretty in pink. Young girl dressed in her school uniform, Isfahan.

Detail of an outside wall mural in the kindergarten next to Aunt Maryam's house.

2. In Iran, the oriental style toilet of a hole in the ground is still prevalent in most households. Modern constructions include western style toilets but they exist in addition to rather than as a substitute for the traditional toilet. For the record, they are not simply holes. The are porcelain-made rectangular openings which are embedded in the ground and sport a water flushing mechanism that one activates with a lever or button in the same way we do with our own toilets. I can tell you that going to the bathroom takes some getting used to because you have to crouch and no matter how much it was touted to me by 'certain' people, I was never completely sold on the ergonomic or colonic benefits of going to the potty this way but, I'm a hardy soul and when in Iran, I do what I gotta do (I hold it in).

3. Cucumbers get eaten like fruit in Iran. Everywhere you go, come mid-morning or mid-afternoon, lovely bowls full of succulent fruit get placed within handy reach. Amongst the peaches, apricots, bananas and cherries there is always the green presence of smallish, rather thin cucumbers which you just bite into skin and all. Some people sprinkle a little salt on theirs but more often than not they're eaten alone.

4. Tea (chai) is constantly and eternally brewing in Persian households. There is always a samovar somewhere in every kitchen, full of hot water and topped by a porcelain teapot where tea leaves get placed or replaced as the need arises. One drinks tea the WHOLE DAY LONG. If you visit someone, the first thing they trot out is the offer for some tea and a tray of sweets. By the way, one does not put sugar in chai. Rather, sugar cubes or rock sugar are offered in small bowls as you get served. Here's what you do: You dip the sugar cube into the piping hot tea long enough to soften it somewhat thanks to the heat and before it melts too much, you pop it into your mouth where every subsequent sip of hot tea wears away at the sweet you hold in the center of your tongue until, it's all gone. I guarantee that if you perform this little trick in front of a Persian, you will impress the socks off of them since foreigners are forever wishing to drop spoonfuls of sugar into tea which they proceed to immediately stir away into nothingness. I know I never waste an opportunity to show off this little bit of insider knowledge. Also, chai gets served only in little see through glasses. There is no such thing as a western style teacup when serving tea properly.

Boxed Persian sweets at a Bakery/Confectionary shop. You can't imagine the variety!

5. Carpets are a big deal in Iran. Really big deal. Surely you've heard of Persian carpets? Well, there's a reason for that. The most beautiful carpets in the world (someone will most likely find it in themselves to dispute this assertion, but I'll stand by my statement) get made in Iran. They are art, family heirlooms, house dress-up pieces. They get handed down from generation to generation and purchased first, sometimes even before the thought of furniture comes into consideration. In a home, the best carpets are placed in the formal areas of the house and in the public dining room (this is for impressing impact), the remainder are exhibited as copiously as space and purchasing power allows. The floor underneath could be dirt really because in terms of flooring, what matters for a Persian is the carpet you are stepping on.

A carpet we purchased gets properly folded for packing and travel.

A decorative detail in our new carpet.

6. This shouldn't surprise you if you ever decide to take a taxi in Iran: You arrive to your destination and you ask your driver how much you owe, he or she (yes, there are female taxi drivers in Iran) will tell you the equivalent of not to worry about it or tell you that it is nothing. Right there you've just been treated to the fine art of taarof. Of course they want to be paid for their time spent in getting you somewhere but, before we can arrive to the point where actual money gets exchanged, there is the compelling need to deny (by the driver) that any monies need to be paid at all. This is not a precursor to haggling mind you, it's just an endemic type of Persian politeness.

A view of the Damavand mountains encircling Tehran. Notice how drivers do not observe lane demarcations. They drive atrociously in Iran. Going out is an exercise in mental fortitude and suppressing the desire to squeak in fright at every near-death driving experience.

Taarof-ing (I've turned it into a verb as you can see) is present daily in many other areas too. For instance:

Would you like to have some more of this delicious cake?

-Nah merci (no, thank you) you reply. But you really do you see. You are dying for another slice and yet, for the sake of politeness and not wanting to seem like a glutton, you are forced to taarof.

-Thank you but no, I'm sure I've had quite enough.

Please, have some. It was newly baked today.

- I'm sure I shouldn't. I've already eaten so much! Now you are only one taarof away from the sweet prize. 3 is the magic number in taarofing practices by the way.

Come on, just a little more, you know it's your favorite. Are you sure you really don't want any?

- Well, maybe yes, I will have a little more, thank you.

And there you have it! A fine example of Taarof if I ever explained one.

For my final informative bit, I will tell you the following:

7. If you travel to Iran, be prepared to deal on a cash basis. Credit cards are not used there. Recently, they've started accepting pre-paid credit cards at certain commercial establishments situated in more western style malls. This implies that you hold a bank account locally and that you pre-pay a credit card from your existing funds. Barring that, everything gets paid with cash. From the stick of bubblegum to the expensive (and real estate is not cheap) apartment homes on the foothills of the Damavand mountains encircling Tehran, it is cash all. the. way. Take it from someone who finds it so much easier to whip out her little bit of plastic, that having to carry around lots of cash ruins the look of my expensive wallet and constantly forces one to worry about the whereabouts of the moolah secreted on their person. If it gets lost or stolen, it's khoda hafez (goodbye) baby, khoda hafez.

Well that concludes this further lesson on Iran. From this Leaping Thought Wednesday to the next, may all your days be full of hot chai, delicious fruits, gorgeous carpets and lots and lots of money. Shab bekheir (goodnight).

I took this photo of a vat full of Zereshk at a fruit merchant's stall. Zereshk is a type of barberry commonly found in Iran and used widely for cooking. It tastes both sweet and tart. Click here for a link that gives you the recipe for Zereshk Polow (Rice with Zereshk). It is a staple of Iranian cuisine and one of my favorite Persian dishes.


  1. hi milena.

    1.why oh why i did not ask you to bottle some famous healing water for me.
    i am about three diarrhea bouts away from a summer bod. (*wink*)

    2. very beautiful carpet, sorry you will have to live on on cucumbers and water for the next 8 years due to the cost.

    3. the art of taarof is alive in the philippines as well.
    in fact when you have dinner in someone's house,
    you must leave a little bit on your plate (even if it is so delicious that you want to lick the plate clean) just so it seems as if you were fed more than enough--and that you are satiated.

    cheers miley! (that is my pet name for you)

  2. Now I know that I should be thankful for clean water and advanced plumbing as I have a very sensitive stomach, one sip of the healing water and an afternoon hovering over a porcelain hole in the ground might have done me in. You are a brave, brave woman. And I just love the fact that taxi drivers dismiss the need for payment., that's just such a gem of colloquialism. Off to tuck a sugar cube beneath my tongue, sip some tea and watch the rain Perisan-style.

  3. I am so enjoying your travel tales. You definitely look like you can pass for Persian with your headcovering on -- and the sugar trick, of course.

    I hope you continue to enjoy your stay and time with jan's family.

  4. It is easy for me to believe that kids will find this posting when writing papers on Iranian culture, citing it in their papers.
    I loved the uniform - it just seems so unlike a uniform. (Does that make sense?) I would try to work on that Taarof but in this busy American culture, I suspect that my protest would be cut off mid-sentence with a "oh. Wow! Okay." The one time I would not want to be taken seriously, I would be.

  5. I received a carpet from Iran for my 40th birthday (while I was still living in Baku), and it is by far the most beautiful carpet I own. The last time I was in a carpet store, in the old part of Baku, I spent way more than I'd planned simply because I couldn't choose between two, and ended up buying them both!

    It must have been a great temptation to spend all your money and perhaps your son's college fund on buying more carpets!

  6. Chesca: I suppose that's one way of losing weight. Next time I'm in Carlsbad, consider it done. You shall have your bottle though I'm not liable for the consequences. (My eyelid is stuck in permanent wink mode for this one).

    As to the carpet, what cucumbers are you talking about? It's water all the way. I call it the carpet diet. You should see our new love in person. She's a beauty alright.

    How awful! You mean you can't lick the plate clean? I don't like this pretending business. Taarof should be a dead kind of art. Waste of time AND a good licking if you ask me.

    Hugs and kisses, your Miley

    Cce: Oh Zee Zee, brave woman indeed dahling! That's moi. Sometimes, I surprise even myself with my pioneer spirit. And yes, Isn't that a marvel? Where else in the world can one eve get a semblance of a free ride? Not in this place where you and I live certainly.

    Sugar on the tongue - lovely sensation all around.

    Robyn: Why thank you Robyn. I really do so love being taken for one. Lately my Farsi accent has improved considerably. I'll learn to pass for one yet. Just you wait and see.

    Ron: Inshallah! And if they credit me, all the better. Milena-isms in the mouths of babes. That's just like sugar on the tongue come to think of it.

    The uniform- hmmm yes. Not very uniform-y at all. Not to thrilled about the pink even though it looks good on the kid. Not too thrilled about the inherent sexism of the color choice. Didn't see boys clad in all blue.

    And taarofing, yes, I don't see you taarofing at all Ron. Doesn't fit your personality. Prevarication doesn't seem to be your thing.

    Suz: WHO, in HEAVEN'S NAME gave you a Persian carpet for a birthday present? And may I pretty please have his phone number - or is he on the hubby's speed dial already?

    I hear you. Know all about the going a 'teensy weensy bit' over the budget deal when in a carpet quandary. R. yes, poor R and his newly impoverished trust fund. The bright side is that we're investing in his future by buying these up. They do appreciate well.

  7. Very interesting! Thank you. Apparently, I have not mastered the art, because I say, "Oh, no thank you; I couldn't, but stop to grab the food as the person walks away with it! :)

  8. Barb: I'm just like you Barb. Just like you.

  9. This was wonderful, Milena. You could (should?) be appointed as some sort of ambassador. The Letitia Baldridge of diplomatic travel. Or something.

    I love your stories, and the lessons you added to them. If I ever travel to Iran, I am already ahead of the game, thanks to you.

    Your rug is gorgeous.

  10. Oh I am loving this. How fascinating!

  11. I've really enjoyed your posts and pictures about your visit to Iran.

    I went to an exhibit on Islamic art at the Kimbell museum in Fort Worth, and saw a lot of wonderful mosaics and rugs similar to what you've shown us. (The timing of the exhibit was unfortunate- it was soon after 9/11, and we had the museum pretty much all to ourselves. It's a pity- there were a lot of wonderful things on exhibit, and a lot of people missed out.)

  12. Jennifer: Thank you. I had to look up who Letitia Baldrige was only to discover upon reading the incredible honor you do me by the kind comparison. So glad you like reading them because the truth is that I like telling them. And I do hope that someday you get to go to Iran. Should that ever happen, I'll take a ringside seat to hearing all you can tell ME about it.

    Flutter: Thanks! Keep reading. There's more.

    Thomas: Indeed. What a sad by-product of an infinitely sadder event. Because of everything that happens in this world which shows the triumph of narrow-mindedness, I am as ever convinced that the way through involves the acquisition of knowledge and the openness necessary to some measure of understanding. Should that ever be achieved, then exhibits like the one you attended would not be viewed as an extension of a heinous act since art has nothing to do with destruction and everything to do with creation.

  13. Thanks for the tips, I will remember these if we are ever to travel to Iran. I would love my days to be full of hot chai, beautiful carpets, delicious fruits and lots and lots of money!
    Love your carpet, nice choice!

  14. Erin: I hope you someday do. Thank you. I love our new carpet too. I pass it every morning on my way to the kitchen and then back to the living areas of my house and I like it more and more with every pass. She's a beaut. I'm wishing the same for you too but you've got Petunia. That trumps everything else.


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