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by Colleen Friesen
For Travel Writers' Tales

Farzan Safa is an eight-year old Canadian. "I am learning Farsi," he says with a beaming smile. He's never been to Iran, but he knows that the mountains overlooking his North Vancouver neighbourhood look like the Alborz mountains in Tehran. He's looking forward to visiting Iran, "I want to meet my cousins."

[008. Farzan Safa with fresh bread]

I am walking along Lonsdale Avenue, guided by Farzan's mother, Sanaz Safa. The day before I had called the Iranian Canadian Information Society, asking if someone could help me navigate the Persian landscape of North Vancouver. Sanaz immediately volunteered. When we meet, she explains that Farzan is home from school because of a sore throat.

His ailment doesn't deter Farzan's enthusiasm to show me all things Iranian. He holds the door open for us at each shop, quietly saying the Islamic greeting of salaam to every shopkeeper we meet. They all nod and smile, responding with the requisite salaam alaykum back to the bright-eyed boy.

[067. Pistachio cookies at Laleh Bakery]

Farzan shows me his favourite cookies in Ayoub's Dried Fruit and Nuts store. "They're called nokhodchi." I check the English label: Chickpea Cookies. Who knew?

I am more captivated by the Ayoub store than the cookies. It is small, like a tiny French shop with large chandeliers, sconces with more light-catching crystals and large pewtery tubs - like ornate bird baths - filled with every kind of nut and dried fruit imaginable.

[033. Ayoub Dried Fruit and Nuts]

The open door at the back shows a dark-haired man monitoring the roaster. The toasty aroma fills the store. I ask him about the process. "We roast eighty percent of the nuts here." Like Farzan, he exudes a quiet pride.

At the Persia Market, I discover three bunches of bushy cilantro for only $1.00. I'm trying to remember the last time I found anything at my grocery store for a loonie. And here are three bouquets for a buck.

There are line-ups at each register. I stand behind a distinctive gentleman in a dark suit, his wavy grey hair is swept back from his high forehead. He has a pronounced moustache. His baskets are filled with perfectly round watermelons, bags of dates, heaps of tomatoes and Farzan's favourite fruit, gojehsabz.

[020. Gojehsabz - Sour plums]

Sanaz takes one out of the box on display. "Try this," she says. It's slightly smaller than a golf ball, green like a Granny Smith apple. It's crisp and tartly juicy. I notice other people tasting the crimson dried barberries, sampling the tea-coloured mulberries or eating out of the bin of badam (almonds). Clearly, Persians believe in a try-before-you-buy shopping approach.

At the Yaas Bazaar, Sanaz shows me their family-favourite drink, a large soft-drink bottle filled with a milky-white liquid. "It's a yogurt soda," she explains.

[012. Sanaz and Farzan Safa with yogurt drink]

The exact numbers of Iranians in the North Vancouver community are hard to come by. Persians are new to the immigration game. For most of their country's history, they were a country that people immigrated to, not from. But in the last decades of unrest and harshly punitive governance, more and more are leaving their beloved homeland. It is estimated there may be as many as 60,000 Iranians in the North and West Vancouver areas.

But with every purchase of calming Echlum tea, another bag filled with kashk to flavour the soup or gathering for their New Year's celebration of Narooz, they remember where they came from. They think about the land they left behind, trying through smell and taste to remember what they had, while adapting to enjoying it in a new home.

Food is often our only entry into someone else's land and culture. For a brief time I saw how so many memories were savored with each bite of something from that distant land; a home that is no longer an option for so many.

Culture, connection and belonging are key parts of a solid foundation for identity. We need to know where we come from, what our stories are and who we are in relation to the world. Farzan Safa is a boy who knows where he belongs. A boy who is being given a healthy identity as a new Canadian, but with Iranian roots that are deep and strong, allowing him to flourish in his new land. I didn't need my passport for this trip. I had a guide and her young son take me to a distant world that was right next door. Take your own trip to North Vancouver. Taste the food and say, Salaam.



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PHOTOS by Colleen Friesen
008. Farzan Safa with fresh bread
012. Sanaz and Farzan Safa with yogurt drink
020. Gojehsabz - Sour plums
033. Ayoub Dried Fruit and Nuts
067. Pistachio cookies at Laleh Bakery

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