Hello everyone. Welcome to this class for the last time. Perhaps you’ve wondered why the woman standing before you, a woman your senior by a generation, a woman who has been your professor for the duration of this course… perhaps you have wondered why this woman chose to devote my academic career to the arcane beguilements of Persian literature. Let me just say this: there was no plan. It was blind and stupid serendipity, a single emotional decision strongly influenced by a poem, a decision I made when I was about your age. And certainly it was not a carefully considered plan either, the plan that carried me from Gotham to Europe and on to Iran. The decisions of a lady errant, you might say. Perhaps. But like some of the decisions you will likely be making in the next few years, this one altered the course of my life.
Let me take you back to another time…
* * *
It was June of 1978, a time both enhanced and impaired by the absence of cell phones and GPS. With my present tenure drawing to a close, I was anticipating several precious weeks of freedom, at least a fortnight of which I intended to fill with glorious travel. Soon I would be leaving Germany, where I was teaching American English to the progeny of corporate executives and government officials ambitious for American universities, and traveling by an as yet undetermined means to Iran where I would still be teaching English, presumably to a similar cohort.
About that same time, a fortuitous happenstance created an intriguing opportunity. A friend introduced me to a male student named Reza who was driving home to Teheran. I needed to make a decision: I could fly, or I could go overland with the Iranian man. Flying was faster but I loved the latter notion, most of it anyway… oh to venture eastward, shunpike whenever possible, cruise through exotic geography, encounter unfamiliar customs, cross the Bosporus into Asia, try new foods, sleep among ancient ruins…
On the face of it, this presented an interesting set of possibilities… or maybe not. What if this Iranian guy turned out to be a closeted smoker? An ultraconservative? A misogynist? An arrogant preener? I went on fretting like that for days.
I acknowledged flying would be a predictable blur of boredom, hassles and discomfort, but it remained a plausible choice. Fast, too. In fact, until Reza appeared on the scene, I had been assuming I would fly. On the other hand, driving in a comfortable car through unknown lands sounded pretty good; but could I really justify the risks inherent in a long-ass road trip across Austria, that formerly cobbled-together country named Yugoslavia now uncobbled into Serbia et al, and on through Bulgaria and Turkey… with some mystery dude? As I thought more about it, I began worrying-up unpleasant scenarios until my visions of an exciting road trip devolved into a passle of misunderstandings compounded with a shovelful of cultural mistrust. It seemed the challenges of driving equaled or even exceeded those discouraging prospects of flying I mentioned.
My fears continued to escalate when I discovered driving would take more than just a few days. No autobahns on the Road to Persia. It would take us at the very least seven days to reach Teheran, slow enough to generate more unpredictable and unknowable problems but too fast to enjoy the rewards of shunpiking.
Of course many things could go wrong. What did I even know about this man? Here is all I had to go on:
I knew the name under which he was enrolled at a university in Frankfurt.
I knew the address where his family lived in Teheran.
We would be traveling in his four-year old Mercedes sedan. Dark brown.
He grew up in Teheran where imams and jube dogs roam.
He was an observant Muslim, and he knew I was Jewish.
He had just completed his third year in mechanical engineering. He was smart.
He often averted his gaze when speaking. Long-lashed, brown eyes.
I was pretty sure he was younger than me.
I knew he spoke British English, some German and Turkish and, of course. Farsi.
I certainly could have flown to Tehran for my next year-long teaching gig. It would have been much faster and simpler; so, as I mentioned, I initially set my mind on flying. My friends, however, had other ideas.
Katja, my zaftig roommate in Frankfurt, said, “I haven’t met this Reza, but I’ve seen him and I believe I’d probably say Ja. Side by side through all those kilometers… Wouldn’t that be ausgezeichnet?” Katja loved to throw in that tongue-twisting Deutsch word meaning awesome.
Inge, whom I often met for coffee at Sachsenhäuser Bäckerei near my flat, said, “A Mercedes? At least we know the vehicle is probably dependable and comfortable. Bet one of you could sleep in back while the other drove. You could drive day and night—no need for hotels.” Dear, practical Inge…
Susan, the friend who introduced me to Reza, said, “He seems so quiet, not at all the dangerous type.” I wondered what made her so sure. I feared Susan was naïve.
Fiona, a fellow English teacher and the only person from Dublin I’ve ever known, said, “I bet he can drill you in Farsi while you travel. Wouldn’t that be lovely?” Drill me?
And they all said, “You’ll have such adventures.”
Yes, especially that last one… Those were my student days when I took to heart the romantic mysticism of Rilke’s poetry. Besides, I was in Germany where his themes carried considerable cultural weight. I was so under the poet’s spell I came close to having his “Let everything happen to you, the beauty and the terror…” tattooed on my arm or my forehead. His poems gave wings to my passion to possess an ever-renewing mind. I never wanted to be so sure of something that nothing could change my position. I thought flying was logical not just because it was faster but because it could deliver both the beauty and the terror… although typically in only small, distant doses. On the other hand, driving to Persia with Reza would certainly provide more of both, more beauty and more terror. Why should I allow lust for the one or fear of the other to determine my decision? Perhaps driving would indeed be the ausgezeichnet choice.
With Rilke looking over my shoulder, I cancelled my flight.
W Goodwin is a visual artist and writer bound by blood and experience to salt water, and directed by mixed genetics to explore uncommon themes. W graduated from UCLA (biochemistry and English), studied scientific photography at the Brooks Institute, traveled through multiple continents and oceans, taught high school and university-level sciences, and raised two excellent children.