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Vacations, Day Trips and Getaways

Vacations, Day Trips and Getaways

Adrienne Smith, the Constant Traveler: An Iranian 'Idyll,' Part IV PDF Print Email

By Adrienne Smith

Jun. 24, 2015:  It's time now for a little education about Iran, some items the result of personal observation and others found on Internet sites, and, most certainly, of varying importance:

  1. Iran's geographical area is slightly smaller than the US's largest state, Alaska.

  2. Almost half of Iran is desert.

  3. Its population exceeds 80 million people, making it the second largest in the Middle East and 18th in the world.

  4. People of Persian extraction make up roughly 61% of the population, followed by 16% Azerbaijanis and 16% Kurds.

  5. 70% of Iranians are under the age of 30.

  6. Somewhere between 90 and 95% of Iranians are Shia Muslims, representing the largest Shia Muslim population in the world, followed by India.

  7. Iranians, who at least for the 61% prefer to be called Persians, do not consider themselves to be Arab. This is because they have their own language, Persian (Farsi), are Shia, rather than Sunni, Muslim, and have maintained a distinct national culture over the centuries.

  8. The current president of Iran is Hassan Rouhani, who is considered a moderate, at least compared to his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

  9. The supreme leader of Iran is Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the second ayatollah to serve since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

  10. There are many ayatollahs, including a few women. Ayatollahs obtain their status via study and discourse.

  11. Iran is the only country in the Middle East that offers a high school course of study equivalent to the A-levels and the International Baccalaureate and a university entrance exam equivalent to the A-level and IB exams and the SATs.

  12. Iran sided with the Axis in World War II, which led to its occupation by the British and Russians in 1941.

  13. Iran has the largest proven gas reserves in the world and is fourth in oil reserves.

  14. Roughly 14.2% of Iranians are obese, compared to 33.9% of Americans.

  15. Starting at menarche, young girls start wearing the hijab.

  16. Girls of 13 or more may marry with the permission of their fathers.

  17. Iran is the nose-job capital of the world. Young women with white bandages on their proboscises can be seen in all the big cities.

  18. Iran is the locus of more sex-change operations each year than anywhere else in the world except Thailand. The procedure is legal and, often, state-financed.

  19. Men who do not marry continue to live at home and are known as na-mard (not-men).

  20. Private ownership of satellite TV dishes is officially banned but violations are mainly overlooked.

  21. Polo had its origins in Persia in the sixth century.

  22. Women in Iran can vote and drive but cannot wear bathing suits in front of men. Beaches and athletic clubs are segregated, the former with barriers down each side.

And now for my favorite factoid. Certain Shia men are allowed to enter into short-term marriages, called siigheh, regardless of whether they have wives and children at home. This is done by contract and can specify a time period ranging from an hour to years. The origin of this procedure seems to derive from pilgrims' "needs" on long, lonely trips to Mecca.

Add to this that there are no beggars on the street, littering is rare, cars don't honk, and young children seem remarkably even-tempered, and you have quite an unusual country.

Pictured here
Ayatollahs in Shiraz.

Photo by Adrienne Smith

Adrienne Smith, the Constant Traveler: An Iranian 'Idyll'--Part III PDF Print Email

By Adrienne Smith

Happiness is right in front of you.  

Jun. 10, 2015:  You, my readers, might think that Iran and its people are frighteningly anti-American. Film clips on television show rallies where murderous crowds hold up signs saying "Kill Americans." And I have to confess that my stomach turned over slightly as I landed in this U.S.-State-Department-warned-against country, a member of George W. Bush's Axis of Evil.

Let me tell you right away that, other than Ireland, I have never been in a friendlier country. Multiple times a day, people rushed up and welcomed us, mothers thrust their babies into our arms for selfies, and many offered us help when we looked confused about where we were going.

On our first and only internal flight from Tehran to Kermanshah, a major city near the Iraqi border, I sat next to a handsome young man who instantly started to tell me about his sister, who either lived in or had visited Los Angeles. 

As with many of my conversations with locals, a language barrier often presented obstacles to a clear understanding of what was being said. In any event, being in a silly mood, I told him that I wanted him to come to America and marry my beautiful but aging daughter. I pointed to a picture of her and to my own wedding ring to make the point. He smiled somewhat noncommittally as I handed him my business card and told him to call me when he arrived. A pilot friend of his sitting in the next row forward was able to say in better English that his friend thought I was funny.

Perhaps because of my blond hair, people always seemed to want to have group pictures with me in the center of their gang. At one point, while scarfing down a dish of ice cream at a highway travel center very much like those on the New Jersey Turnpike, a young woman seemed to say that she thought my hair color was pretty. I gestured, and you must instantly forget this, that my color was artificially obtained, pantomiming pouring a lightening substance onto my scalp.

At one point, when we were staying at a rather dreary so-called fort hotel, not at all the equivalent of a Spanish parador, I was standing on the balcony outside my room when a young girl, eight years old, started talking with me in remarkably good English. We had a pleasant little talk, and despite the fact that it was 10:00 pm, she invited me to her house. I told her that I didn't think I was allowed to go but rushed downstairs to talk further and give her a big hug. As I understand it, all children in Iran learn English as part of a required curriculum. My friend had been a fast learner.

The most delightful sight on the whole trip was seeing hijab-clad, fawn-like young teenage girls laughing and smiling when they saw us, daring each other to be the first to talk or to ask for a photo. Each seemed more lithe and beautiful than the next, and we had many happy exchanges with them.

For those old enough to remember college mixers, I knew that the way to meet dashing young men was to walk away from the group of over-eager fellow coeds and trot around the room, thus enabling some shy lad to spring forward. Well, the same was true in Iran. Every time I found an excuse to bolt from my group, an Iranian would come up to chat. I had a wonderful time outside a famous Armenian church in Isfahan when a young mother sat down next to me and we began to talk. Sociologically minded as always, I turned the "gesticular" conversation to infant feeding, asking her whether she had nursed or bottle-fed her babies, mimicking the bottle by holding my closed hand up to my mouth and the other possibility by, well, you know. She laughed and explained that she breast fed.

Sometimes, however, things could take a bit of a turn. One of my fellow adventurers was an older man, originally from Germany, who spoke with a definite accent. He was nonplussed when an Iranian man sidled up to him and told him that he "loved Hitler."

By the end of our 14 days, I have to admit that I got somewhat weary of our "celebrity" status and of the need to look incredibly, Americanly happy at all hours of the day and night. But, despite my fatigue, I was left with the impression of friendly, well-meaning, curious, cheerful people, and that was really something!

Pictured here:  Hijab-clad, fawn-like young Iranian teenage girls.

Photo by Adrienne Smith

Adrienne Smith, the Constant Traveler: An Iranian 'Idyll'--Part II PDF Print Email

By Adrienne Smith

There is an ambush everywhere from the army of accidents; 
therefore the rider of life runs with loosened reins.


May 27, 2015:  It's time for our Iranian travel group to meet. We go into a conference room in our hotel in Tehran and take turns introducing ourselves around the table. We are lawyers, college professors, communications experts, basket makers, golfers, doctors, importers, almost all of us retired. We hail from the East Coast, the West Coast, and in between. We are here because of an interest in archaeology, in seeing modern-day Iran, and, some, for no particular reason at all. 

We exit the hotel and climb onto our bus, which takes us to the former royal palace, where the shah held sway until his overthrow in 1979. It's unseasonably hot; the sun is beating down on us, the guide is droning on for what will undoubtedly be a long visit. 

I'm not sure why, but almost all stairs in Iran seem to have enormous rises. Since I, myself, have trouble descending one short flight, I stand at the bottom to help some of my more elderly fellow travelers down. My head is even with the floor above. Suddenly, the nice gentleman from the airport slides down the wall, hits his head, faints, and seizes right at my eye level. Not good at all. 

He's completely out for, perhaps, a minute and then slowly regains consciousness. One tour guide stands near him and I talk to him softly from my spot. He seems confused but OK. Our doctor group member takes his pulse and suggests that we call for emergency assistance. Crowds of concerned tourists and Iranians gather around. 

Within ten minutes, the EMTs arrive in an ambulance. They take vitals, which are normal. But our doc wants to get an EKG to be on the safe side. As the mother of an MD, I, quite naturally, spout my received wisdom. It is agreed that the doc, our guide, and I will pile into the ambulance with our ailing member, who is actually able to walk with assistance. 

The EMTs are completely competent. They continue to monitor pulse, blood pressure, and respiration and prepare a port for a potential intravenous. We zip through traffic, although I can't remember whether with sirens blasting or not. 

We arrive at a normal-looking public city hospital. The victim is wheeled in, and we follow behind.  

After a short wait, our man is examined by a middle-aged woman doctor who seems slightly irritated that the patient is not sicker than he is. He is then wheeled into a more "private" area, separated only by curtains from bays on either side. 

The emergency room is buzzing with activity. It is not easy to discern who is a doctor, a nurse, or a civilian, other than by hanging stethoscopes. We wait, and wait, and wait some more. 

Privacy and HIPAA-type concerns don't seem to be particularly relevant here, so I whip out my camera to take some shots. Patients and their family members wander in and out of our enclosure, smiling or looking worried. At one point, after our man has been started on intravenous fluids, a hijab-garbed woman, who doesn't appear to be a medical person, comes in and starts fooling with his IV line. I joke with our patient that she is the Angel of Death. Mercifully, he's in a good mood now and laughs heartily. 

Another woman keeps peering in and finally beckons for me to follow her. I accompany her to what, I gather, is her mother's bedside. The mother, it seems, wants to meet an American. We have a short, friendly, sign-language-filled conversation about her stomach pains, and I return to my spot. 

An attractive young male doctor checks our patient and seems to want to take all sorts of tests, including an MRI and some X-rays. We all balk and ask that testing be limited to the EKG, which, when administered, shows a healthy ticker. 

We then have to wait for the unhookment ceremony. A nurse comes in with what looks like a bottle of Mr. Clean, sprinkles our patient's arm liberally, and removes the intravenous. 

Three hours and $180 later, we're off to have our first of far too many shish kebab lunches. This unscheduled detour has been much more interesting than seeing the crown jewels!

Pictured here:  Public city hospital in Tehran. 

Photo by Adrienne Smith

Adrienne Smith, the Constant Traveler: An Iranian 'Idyll'--Part I PDF Print Email

By Adrienne Smith 

The world is a bride of surpassing beauty--but remember that this maiden is never bound to anyone.

--Hafiz (1325-1389) 

May 13, 2015:  I am nervously awaiting my Turkish Airlines flight to Tehran at Istanbul's Ataturk Airport. We're boarding. I pass a man in business class who is holding an itinerary for the same group trip I will be on. I nod at him and continue to my seat in the rear. 

Touching down in Tehran, I fussily try to put on my head scarf, revealing as little hair as possible, while clutching my short black raincoat in a fashion to reveal as few curves as I have left, then exit the plane. 

Immigration goes without a hitch, almost. My agent beckons for me to stand aside. 

What is this about? She then accompanies me to an office nearby, where I am handed over to another official. I see my business class friend ahead, similarly asked to wait.  

We have been told in advance that the last trip sponsored by my group had included a member who had failed to disclose that she was a journalist for an Israeli newspaper, and, by publishing a controversial story, had caused potential headaches for our group. So we are somewhat prepared for adversity. 

Anxiety passes as my fellow traveler and I are cleared; we collect our baggage, meet our guide, and are transported smoothly to our hotel. It is now late afternoon and we are free until the morrow. 

My hotel room is a perfectly adequate city space. The bathroom contains a peculiar expandable, detachable, garden-hose-like water line next to the toilet, which will turn out to be quite crucial in the following days. The TV has mostly Iranian channels but also includes the BBC. Internet comes and goes. I can get the New York Times and my email but not Facebook, Twitter, or other more trashy sites I, in my shameless degradation, am accustomed to follow. The phone system is incompatible with any that my iPhone recognizes, so calls, other than via Skype, are out. 

My towels, two large and two small, are each hygienically wrapped in plastic. Resorting to teeth-ripping, I free them and bathe. 

Now it is time for dinner, so I stumble down to the rather drab lobby coffee shop, where I consume a bowl of tomato soup, glance at my very few, somewhat glum, fellow diners, pay the check, and go to bed. 

Tomorrow, as it turns out, will be quite another day.

Author's note:  This series of articles is not meant to be a political or journalistic juggernaut. Rather, it will be limited to the impressions I had as a tourist. Any information included represents only known facts or my personal observations and is not based on anything I was told on my travels through Iran. I am intentionally leaving out the name of my tour group.

Pictured here:  Former US embassy in Tehran. 

Photo by Adrienne Smith

Adrienne Smith, the Constant Traveler: Tracing the Toilette PDF Print Email

By Adrienne Smith

Apr. 22, 2015:  I found myself in Paris the other day, and, Louvred-out, I decided to visit the Musée Marmottan Monet, located in a lovely residential area north of the Etoile. The museum is the repository of, inter alia, the largest collection of Claude Monet's works in the world, given to it by his son in 1966.

The museum was also the site of a daring, opening-hours robbery in 1985, during which nine Monets, a Renoir, and a Morisot, with an estimated value of $12 million, were stolen. International investigation led dramatically to Japan's Yakuza and the eventual recovery of the art works.

Uninterrupted by any criminal activity, I was there to see the temporary exhibit titled La toilette, naissance de l’intime, or, in translation, The Invention of Privacy. To start out on the right foot, it is important to understand the word "toilette" to mean those things accompanying the daily preparation of the female body, including washing, brushing, applying makeup, and the like.

Using artwork through the centuries, the exhibit reflects changing notions of the toilette's role in life. The viewer is told that public baths were common in the Middle Ages. But with the coming of the Renaissance, such practices became considered dangerous and unclean. Only the elite continued to wash in their own capacious tubs. A tapestry of the period shows a young woman bathing, surrounded by her maids and musicians.

By the 17th century, no one was taking baths, out of a concern that the water would interfere with the body's humors. In its place, at least for the high born, was the literal toilette, a table covered with a tapestry on which rested oils and unguents to be used for the ritual. Linen cloths took the place of water, and bedding was changed frequently. A portrait of a servant girl of the time, who apparently was not so fortunate, shows her picking out lice from her abdominal region.

The 18th century marks a return of water, to be used privately as the first stage of the toilette, followed by a more public grooming. Paintings from the era also show a new eroticism. While women are shown at their toilette, men repair to their dens, on the walls of which are somewhat scabrous pictures of young women, while beautifully dressed, cleansing their more private areas.

In the 19th century, full privacy of the toilette arrives. Women are pictured only brushing their hair and finishing their dressing. The year 1850 brings the advent of running water and daily washing. Some houses have only a single tap from which the water is transported to a tub elsewhere in the residence. But in the prudish spirit of the Victorian era, pictures of washing are limited to the feet or other remote parts of the body.

Near the end of the century, Edgar Degas and Pierre Bonnard depict women lolling alone in their baths, lost in thought, which the exhibit describes as moving toward a more enigmatic and private identity.

Next, Pablo Picasso and Fernand Léger transmute the human form from earthy flesh into geometric shapes.

And finally, after World War I, the rise of Elizabeth Arden, Helena Rubenstein, and others commercializes makeup for all. Photography of the toilette follows and universalizes the process, bringing to an end the mysterious notion of the toilette and its subject for artists.

Pictured here:  Painting by Abraham Bosse, 1604-1676, one in a collection titled Five Senses.

Photo by Adrienne Smith

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