Giorgio Zanella is a 29-year-old Italian from Trento in northern Italy – and a regular traveler to Iran. Kayhan London caught up with Giorgio to find out about his experiences in the country.

Q: What made you decide to go to Iran in the first place?

A: I saw a documentary about ancient Iran and its culture when I was 14. Two years later, I started to learn more about post-Islamic Iran: I studied the history of Iran during the Safavid period, and examples of Islamic art and architecture in the country. I am interested in the art, culture, architecture and history of the Middle East, so I travel as much as I can.
I first saw Persian art on a trip to Uzbekistan. When I got back to Italy, I tried to make friends with Iranian students who were studying in my city. In the end, I decided to visit the country.

Q: How did the visa process go?

A: It was not very difficult. A friend and I applied for the visa at the Iranian embassy in Italy. We were told that we had to book a hotel at least for one night to be able to secure the visa. We couldn’t book any hotels online, because Iranian hotels are not on booking websites, so we had to go through a travel agency. There was only a double room available, so we booked it.

When we arrived at the hotel to check in, a young woman at the reception desk told us that she would give us a twin room. That was totally fine for us, as we were not a couple. Besides, Iran has strict rules against LGBT people.

Q: What were your impressions of modern-day Iran?

A: I was surprised when I arrived. In my country and elsewhere in Europe, people take care of old buildings. But Iranians tend to destroy them and build modern ones. Also, most Iranians live in big cities.

Q: Did you have any friends in Iran when you went there?

A: No, I didn’t, but making friends in Iran is not a difficult task. Honestly, it’s really easy. When you walk in the streets as a tourist and people find out that you are not Iranian, they come up to you and try to make conversation. I only had problems with taxi drivers, because the fares are not fixed, and you have to bargain.

Q: What kind of problems did you have with taxi drivers?

A: Once, I was in Bam and wanted to go to Kerman. I couldn’t agree on a price with a taxi driver, so in the end I took a bus. Then I found out that I was arguing over the equivalent of only 76 euro cents! Converting the Iranian currency into euros is a bit hard. For example, they ask you for 1,000 tomans, which seems a huge number, but when you convert to euros, it works out to nothing.

Q: How did you find Iranians in general?

A: Iranians are so kind and hospitable that it can sometimes be confusing. In the beginning, I was not familiar with their culture, so I didn’t know what they wanted when they did me a favor.

Once, a guy offered us to sleep at his place and said we all would sleep in one room. I was shocked – I didn’t know what he meant. Since he was so kind and gentle, we couldn’t refuse his offer, and we were sure that he wouldn’t do anything bad to us. We realized later that it was just a favor he was doing. As he didn’t have a spare room, he offered us a place to stay as his guests.

The other thing was that when we were out with our Iranian friends, they wouldn’t let us pay. I had to fight with them even to pay items that I wanted to buy for myself…

Q: Did you like Iranian dishes?

A: Oh yes, Iranian food is tasty. I like the way they cook meat. I also like Iranian stews like ghormeh sabzi.

Q: What did you find surprising about Iran?

A: Iran has an Islamic government with Islamic rules, but the people are not very religious or fundamentalist. Turkish people are, even though Turkey seems an open country.
The other thing that surprised me was that there were two types of people. The first group were curious about us and wanted to know where we were from and what we did. Also, most of them wanted to exchange contact details, even though we barely knew each other.

The second group were the opposite. They were afraid of foreigners and strangers. Once, as I stepped out of my room in a budget hotel (mosaferkhaneh), a little kid ran towards me. I smiled at him. Suddenly his mother grabbed the kid and ran off. I didn’t understand. I think she was scared of foreigners.

Q: Did you have any particular problems in Iran?

A: Not really. Once, the police stopped our bus to check the passengers and their bags. It was not because of us. It happened near Kerman, which is near the Afghan border. I think it’s normal because of the situation in Afghanistan. The police officers were friendly and polite.

(By Mansoureh Farahani)