In the days before email was the communication norm, waiting to find out when my appointment for a green card interview was to be scheduled, I would wake up before dawn to call the American Consulate in Naples, where my application was being considered. My attorney had suggested I called, repeatedly, as, by the time I would get the letter, the appointment date would be too close to book a reasonably priced flight (or even past – the Italian mail is notorious).
Finally, one foggy November morning, a friendly employee told me I was scheduled to appear on December 5. I decamped to Naples, dragging my mother along, for the two-day proceedings. We stayed at the Pensione Ancora, a cheery hotel right by the water and a skip and a hop from the sprawling and imposing American outpost.
I spent the next two days with five other souls, seeking American residency, huddled on benches along wide corridors, waiting for an ancient doctor to examine us and deem us TB and HIV free; on taxis looking for the clinic where we would receive a million vaccinations; in a large room where a consular employee, behind a glass, would decide our fate.
I wasn’t worried – my work for a multinational company, in those days, made me an easy shoo-in – but I was bored. An elderly Iranian couple found ripe terrain when they asked me to help them fill out the endless forms we were given. They did not speak Italian and their English was shaky – and I was more than happy to oblige. As Iran has no diplomatic ties with the United States, all consular matters for Iranian citizens are explicated in other countries, Italy being one of them.
During those two days, I kept the Iranian couple close, shuttling them around Naples with me, explaining as best I could what was going to happen. In the process, I understood their son lived in the US, that the gentleman was a former politician under the Shah, and, now retired, they were looking to spend six months of the year in Los Angeles. I curiously peeked at the passport photo of Iran, I still remember her name, in which she was veiled, and how different she looked from the elegant lady sitting next to me.
Once it was all over, and we were sent on our way with large yellow envelopes containing the proof that we now belonged in America, I boarded a train north with the charming couple who, in an effort to thank me, offered me a bag of Persian pistachios and a sachet of saffron. We exchanged phone numbers and I forgot all about them until a month or so later, when, back in LA, I got a call from Iran, inviting me for dinner. It was my first encounter with Persian cuisine and hospitality. The fragrant saffron rice, the mounds of chopped herbs, the juicy meat – it all stayed with me and made me look for more. Which, in LA, home to the largest Iranian diaspora in the world, is not hard.
Walk down a stretch of Westwood Boulevard and you will find yourself in “Persian Square”, where you can eat at one of the delicious restaurants, drop into an ice-cream parlor for saffron and rose ice-cream or in one of the food markets for any ingredients not readily available at your local supermarket (pomegranate molasses come to mind). If you live in LA, you have at least a passing knowledge of Persian culture: you must have some Persian friends or, at the bare minimum, noticed the banners that go up at this time of the year, wishing a Happy Norwuz.
As I am a glutton for festivities, which I repurpose to fit my life no matter the culture they originate from, I embraced Norwuz immediately: a secular celebration of spring, it’s also known as the Persian New Year. Families come together around elaborate and multi dish meals and the day is spent visiting families and friends. Typically, American Iranians travel to Iran or their family members travel over here (a practice severely dampened by the recent travel ban).
At the heart of Norwuz, which coincides with the Spring equinox (a time feted by many ancient cultures all over Europe) is renewal. Winter is over and we are getting ready to embrace longer and warmer days, to refresh our lives (and baring our glow in the dark legs), to renew ourselves. In a nod to Norwuz, tonight I will make a simple fish baked with a ton of herbs and the crusty rice I like so much that I encountered, for the first time, nearly twenty years ago.
So – whether Persian or not, let me wish you a wonderful Spring: may it be a season of renewal, of hope and joy.