The Spring Equinox marks No Ruz, the Iranian New Year. Government offices, banks, schools and universities close. Everyone goes visiting family, or takes a holiday in Iran, or for some, abroad. Train tickets are sold out, hotels booked up, sights overrun with tourists. On the 13th day of the New Year it's unlucky to be at home, so everyone goes for a picnic. Our guidebook recommends not to come to Iran for the two weeks of the No Ruz holidays because of the sheer volume of national holidaymakers, but we are already here, and we want to see a bit more of the country.
So here we are in the city of Magi*, helping out at the Persian Hotel* at the invitation of Reza*, the owner, in return for board and lodging (*real names have been changed). The hotel is in a traditional courtyard style, with a roof terrace and restaurant, and Reza wants us to help wait on tables and clear up, make tea, wash-up, whatever. He suggested this to us when we had asked about travel options during No Ruz, and he seemed such a relaxed and generous guy that we said yes, almost straight away. We arrive on our nightbus from Tehran and his first instruction to us is to take some breakfast and then catch up on our sleep. We are assigned the little room halfway up the stairs, barrel-vaulted, with room for a three-quarter mattress on the floor and a few ill-fed mozzies. Critically, it is cool. And, in estate agent's parlance, cosy. A happy home for a fortnight.
We only have one or two doubts - Reza would like one of us to be in the kitchen at 7am, and the other to stay until midnight. Only he and Danny speak English. Our visa does not permit work. What do we say to people who ask?? We needn't worry - Reza is very relaxed about everything and all the staff are very kind and friendly. Immediately we are treated like "one of them" by everyone we work with. The hotel is booked up for the two week holiday, mostly with Iranian groups, nearly all from Tehran. It occurs to us after two days that Reza might see us as a novelty attraction to these wealthy Tehranis, who often speak good English and who are always eager to meet and talk to foreigners. But we are keen to pull our weight in the kitchen and earn our food. There is Mohsen, the manager, a skinny young man who can't do anything right. We nickname him The Ghost because he is never there when you need him, floats about in the shadows, and reappears silently when there's no-one around. At first we cannot comprehend how he has got this job, but Reza explains a lot later that his father and uncle both suffered from mental illness, and that Mohsen may have inherited something that means he thinks one thing and does another. His father is now dead, and as eldest son, he now earns for the whole family.
Then there is Danny. A 19 year-old Afghan born in Iran, he works the longest hours for no pay simply so that he can practice and improve his English. He is our favourite, keeps the whole thing together, and bombards us relentlessly with questions about words, idioms, grammar and pronunciation. ("Can you give me an example of an unemphatic negative imperative?" " You probably shouldn't ask me that, Danny.") He serves most of the punters single-handedly, from 7am 'til midnight and often doesn't go home. He's always polite and smiling, even in zombie-mode, but mutters in the kitchen "effing iranians", when someone turns up for food at 11.30pm. Afghans are looked down on in Iran, despite having the reputation of being the hardest working, and the rest of the staff always say Danny's crazy. His desire to learn English is obsessive compulsive. He cannot continue his education at university and is desperate to leave Iran, and sometimes seems very depressed, but most of the time he is applying new vocabulary and practising new phrases and we have lots of fun with him. "Absolutely Fabulous!" and "You're Fired!" emerge from the kitchen, alongside "Easy Peasy, Lemon Squeezy."
When Reza is around there is a hustle and bustle, but without him chaos and lassitude. Constantly the staff use an Iranian phrase with us - "Take it easy". We feel like we have found the Iranian answer to Fawlty Towers. On our first night, feeding kebabs and rice to a group of 35 (Reza says Iranians eat only the same old dishes) I take out a tray laden with food. There are steps everywhere. Gayle offers little support: "Don't do a Manuel!" The kitchen is in two parts, separated by three steps from the roof terrace which commands a great view overlooking the wonderful tiled domes of the city, lit up at night. Although it is baking hot most of the day, it's a great spot after sunset, and catches the cool evening breeze. Inside the kitchen is always hot - a big samovar kept constantly on the boil for tea, which is drunk by the gallon. On our first night there appear numerous "helpers" - Mr. Mehdi, the accountant, Mr. Vahid, the manager from the partner hotel around the corner, and Mr. Kebab. We don't know what Mr. Kebab does during the day, but he appears like clockwork every night to stand in the kitchen, tell people what to do, and then consume several kebabs. He looks a bit like Willie Thorne, the snooker player. The cook, Mr. Hussein, is a young law-student earning some cash in the holidays, and his brother, Reza Chi (Little Reza) appears magically whenever it is busy. Throughout the day there is assistance from Madame Kermani, who calls me Mr.Jack, Madame Tabrizi who is heavily pregnant, married to an opium-addict and has one tooth missing, and Azadeh, a younger woman who sometimes brings her cheeky and smiling little girl to work. Amongst the steam, the shouting, the sweat and the chaos, these women go about their business, chopping vegetables, cooking, cleaning and washing-up completely unfazed by anything. At one point we count 11 people in the kitchen. It is not a big kitchen.
Our daily routine begins with us alternately rising at 7am to layout the buffet breakfast (the best we've seen in Iran, with fresh coffee!), make endless pots of tea and clear and wash-up. There is then a long interlude until the evening, unless weary sightseers brave the heat and turn up for a late lunch. Early evening there are foreign tourists, whom we chat to about routes and travel plans. And then around 10pm there is a final wave, sometimes an assault, it seems, of Iranians. We are usually done and dusted by midnight, only once running on until 1am. Even the busy times are great fun - and always chaotic. Our lack of Farsi means that only Reza and Danny can actually give us clear instructions, although both are guilty of doing everything themselves instead of giving orders. There have been times when I have found myself saying "I know nothing" and wandering around lost with a tray of food like Manuel. There is never any preparation for an evening and we often lack the same items: bread, yoghurt, tomatoes. Khouroosh runs a little carpet shop out the back, and often helps out. He too speaks English and he laughs at my attempt to organise things. After two nights I give up. Khouroosh has made helpful suggestions in the past which seem to have fallen on deaf ears.
This hotel is virtually empty most of the year. The partner hotel is where most foreign tourists stay - it is a stalwart on the backpacker trail. It seems that No Ruz is the only time most Iranians take a holiday. The town has gone from a sleepy quiet place, to a thriving bustling city. The narrow old streets are filled with large groups of tourists, and the covered bazaar teems with shoppers. The main mosque is busy all day long. On New Year's Day I take a stroll and end up playing footie with three small lads - two on two - on a small tarmac pitch. Me and Zinedine Zidane, take on Steven Gerrard and Ronaldinho in the midday sun. I am nutmegged and tricked by Ronaldinho mercilessly, but a few mistimed tackles takes care of him and we scrape a 10-9 victory. I collapse with heat exhaustion and bear a bruised toe for several days afterwards. Ahhh, just like Tuesday nights in Manchester. Apart from the heat, that is. Gayle ventures out occasionally for ice-cream, but the hotel remains a peaceful oasis for us to catch up on reading and writing postcards............