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Originally published Sunday, August 10, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Travel essay

A familiar sensation in a grown-up Iran

Lunch in the hotel on the first day of my trip brought many familiar tastes: cool yogurt, thick and creamy; long-grain rice seasoned with...

Special to The Seattle Times

Lunch in the hotel on the first day of my trip brought many familiar tastes: cool yogurt, thick and creamy; long-grain rice seasoned with saffron; chewy bites of sangak, a smoky flatbread baked in clay ovens; and plump tomatoes burnished by fire, just the right size to fit on a kebab skewer between chunks of lamb.

These tastes were memories come to life. They carried me back 50 years: I was 5 years old, a little American girl living in Tehran, Iran, where my father had taken a two-year assignment with the Near East Foundation.

Now, in April 2008, I had returned for the first time. I was excited to be back, to revisit this chapter of my childhood that had been kept alive through the years by happy memories embedded in family stories.

I had a few fears before my trip: Would I, an American tourist, encounter hostility? Could I tolerate wearing a head scarf? Iran's constitutional law requires that, whenever in public, women must wear a scarf and loose clothing that covers to the wrists and ankles.

None of my fears were justified.

I never encountered any hostility during my two-week trip. Even wearing a head scarf wasn't as bad as I had expected. And I experienced abundant friendliness.

The Iranians I spoke with in bazaars, teahouses, schools, shops and historical sites were pleased to have Americans visiting and learning firsthand about their country. A smile given and returned was usually all it took to open a conversation.

I remember the five young women I met in the bazaar in the city of Shiraz. They were students, among the women who hold the majority of places in Iran's universities. They were excited to learn I was from "Amrika." As we gathered for a photograph, arms interlinked, the student next to me, an ecology major, whispered, "I am so happy." I felt the same way.

There was the woman I chatted with at the end of my visit to the ancient palace of Persepolis. Here the carved limestone columns tower to the sky and the elegant bas reliefs reveal the great Persian Empire of 2,500 years ago. As we rested in the shade, she told me she was newly retired from her job as an industrial project manager. I was delighted to meet her, for she confirmed my observations that women are active in many facets of Iranian life.

I met schoolchildren on a field trip to the Chehel Sotun Palace in Esfahan who bounced and giggled around me like a sea of pingpong balls, shouting, "Kojast?" Where? They cheered when I shouted back, "Amrika, USA!" And of course, there were photographs. Each child had a camera, it seemed. My face hurt from smiling so much.

Such warmth and welcome were deeply familiar. The family stories I grew up with were peopled with Iranians who had become valued friends and colleagues of my parents in the 1950s.

From a hand-drawn map and faded photographs, I tried to find the two-story house in Tehran where we had lived. But our street is now built over, and the neighborhood is filled with high-rises. The city has grown up.

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But I didn't need the house to feel reconnected to Iran. The tastes, the smells, the sights and, most of all, the people led me back to my childhood even as I was making adult memories.

Back home in Seattle, I've found a Persian restaurant where the fragrance of the rice is familiar. The taste feeds my longings to return again to Iran.

Nancy Penrose lives in Seattle.

The Travel Essay, written by readers about an adventure or insight, runs each Sunday in The Seattle Times and also online at seattletimes.com. Essays, which are unpaid, must be no longer than 600 words and will be edited for content and length. E-mail to travel@seattletimes.com or send to Travel, The Essay, The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111. Because of the volume of submissions, individual replies are not always possible.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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