We left Tehran in the early morning hours. Ever since the earthquake the shorter road to the Caspian has been closed so we had to take the longer, Haraz road, that cuts through the rugged and magnificently soaring Alborz Mountains.
I do not remember when I was here last but it must be at least twenty-five years.
During the years living abroad I always looked back at my memories of this place, where I came to vacation with my family as a child and teenager, with that fondness that comes more from a sense of loss than a simple nostalgia for the past. The loss of a place as much as a way of life. A way of life that is itself not well remembered but badly missed because it occurred when everything seemed possible both for the country and for the woman that I was rapidly becoming.
When my friend invited me to come to her waterfront villa I agreed with the excitement of a returned exile who yearns to renew her memories and give a location to her feelings. When you live in exile feelings always seem to come from a place, once home, but now, far away and ever fading. In those years of absence from Iran every seaside resort from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean reminded me of the Caspian where I first beheld that wonderfully wet and salty flavor of sea air.
The drive to here from Tehran is itself dramatic. The snaking road takes one up from the city beyond the line of smog and into the belly of the mountains. The rise in elevation is so quick that one feels it in the ears. The air becomes cool and the mountains pierce the clouds like craggy and crooked fingers of an old man reaching out to god. The sheer tallness of the mountains is breathtaking. At one point in the road, in Pollur, the snow-capped Damavand peak appears with awe-inspiring suddenness.
Passing through the numerous tunnels–opportunities for mischief when we were young–the road descends into the Caspian area, where the mountains turn green and the humidity of the sea acts like a hot house for the lush green vegetation.
I remember as an adolescent how I loved taking car trips in Iran. The movement of the car and the frame of the window from which I looked out at the landscape provided a cinematic backdrop for my daydreams. I could go on for hours that way never feeling bored. I miss the ability to daydream like that.
Return home for the exile who has yearned it for so many years is always disappointing. No place can live up to an exile’s memory of it. But the Caspian was even more beautiful than I remembered it. The sea is vast stretching to what seems to be a forbidding north (perhaps because it used to be the Soviet Union). It changes colors by the minute as though reflecting the accommodating nature of Iranians vis-à-vis changing tyrants through out history.
I had been warned by well wishing friends that “ the Caspian has become too over-developed.” But having watched other places, like the South of France, grow in the past two decades this place seemed somehow still quaintly un-developed.
From the Haraz road the first town that you descend on by the sea is Amol. I remember driving to Amol to make phone calls to my father when my mother ran summer camps here for oil company workers’ daughters. There were no private phone lines back then. As a little girl I loved the shops that line either side of the main strip selling local crafts mostly made of rattan and all kinds of beach gear like swimming rings and blow up balls.
Taking the road that crosses the Caspian from one end to the other we saw rather thin looking cows crossing the road and blessedly few buildings that smacked of “development.” The closer to Nowshahr that one gets the closer the sea becomes to the mountains. My friends villa is located at a point where it enjoys both close views of the tree covered mountains and the sea.
The villa is typical of the villas built by the wealth-to-do of the ancien regime. A gate opens to a lushly tree-lined drive that leads up to the villa. There is a look of ancient gentility about the place — like it has seen better days. It reminded me of the aging star’s mansion in, the movie, “Sunset Boulevard.” The place looks sad. The paint is old and chipping the pool has not been painted in ages and the garden looks like it needed grooming. The tennis court, I was informed by my host, is now under the sea. The house itself is beautifully built with all the right nooks and crannies of a vacation home. Its best feature is a rather large balcony that looks out on the sea.
The sunny weather turned the minute we drove up to the villa. Big, pregnant, gray clouds invaded the sky with dramatic flair. A warm and wet wind swept across the sea making the waves rumble in ever more rapid succession. The sound of their clash against the rocks seemed angry — as if tired of the many days of clam they had decided to revolt and make their presence known in loud roars of discontent.
I was happy by this turn of the weather. A sunny day would have clashed too much with what I felt inside. A mixture of sadness for something lost and happiness about something revisited — a feeling I have often had since my return to Iran.