It's fun to be surprised by the unexpected

The man who stopped me in a Boston public alley and asked for a dollar had grizzled hair and a lived-in face. But he was also tidy in a T-shirt and jeans, and didn't look like your typical "street person." In fact he looked purposeful and there was nothing apologetic about his approach.

Although I'm generally a bit cautious about such encounters – especially in alleys – this time the little voice of intuition said, "Do it!"

While I rummaged in my backpack for my wallet, the man extracted a piece of paper from a plastic bag. "It's my poem," he said, handing the paper to me as I came up with a dollar.

I looked it over quickly, not knowing what to expect, and then I caught his name at the bottom – it was Persian.

I knew that because earlier in the day I had been practicing the pronunciation of the name of the president of Iran, Ahmadinejad. I had been tripping over it mentally for months in headlines, so I finally decided to repeat it 10 times – ah-mah-deen-eh-jad – until I no longer tripped. And this man's name ended with that same "jad," so I pronounced it easily and correctly.

He was blown away: "Oh, my goodness!"

With that response, I assumed he was Persian, so I asked him what part of Iran he was from.

His eyes widened. "Hey, you're very smart, lady," he said.

"No, just a little smart," I admitted.

He told me he was from Tehran. Then he accepted my dollar with a gracious nod.

As he turned and walked away, I stood there silently, reaching for something in memory – and at last I called out after him, "khodahafez!"

He turned and put his hands to his head: "Oh, my goodness!" he said again.

Actually, we were both surprised. The word means "goodbye" in Farsi, or Persian, and it had been decades since I had uttered the word. It was actually one of the few words of Persian that I had learned back in my college days when a dozen or so Persians from Tehran were students at the small California college I attended.

They, and those of us studying such unexotic foreign languages as French and German, belonged to the International Students' Club. Thus, I had learned khodahafez and how to write my name from right to left in Farsi script.

Now, with my vocabulary exhausted, I hefted my backpack up onto my shoulders and headed on down the alley, reading the poem.

Then came the second surprise: It was an exuberant paean of thanks to God for healing the man of addiction. I was struck with a moment of remorse: I had given him only a dollar. I turned back, but he had already vanished from sight around the corner. But then, I thought, he hadn't asked for more, either.

That was the first of a string of unexpected Persian encounters I had right in my own neighborhood with nearby merchants. One of them was with my condo manager. The day I went to his office to arrange for plumbing repairs, I saw his nameplate and knew the name was Persian. We ascertained quickly that one of my Persian classmates decades ago out in California is his father's cousin back in Tehran.

"Did he play Ping-Pong?" the manager asked.

Actually, they all played Ping-Pong more than they studied, since Ping-Pong is a Persian passion. That has been one of my regrets – that given the opportunity to learn more than "goodbye" in Farsi, I instead acquired a Ping-Pong serve with underspin that drops the ball just over the net on my opponent's side.

Those were, of course, the light-hearted days before the shah was deposed and the flight from the rule of the ayatollahs brought Iranians by the thousands to the West.

Now I have started studying Persian in earnest, and each week I drop in on the merchants in the area to practice what I've learned.

I study a little each day because it's unusually challenging. Take khodahafez, for example. It's written as two words – khoda hafez – but spoken as one word, just as "God be with you" has become "goodbye." And English, lacking certain Farsi consonants, poorly transliterates the sounds. (But if you can manage the "ch" in Loch Lomond, you can say the Persian "kh.")

Additionally, Farsi letters assume different shapes, depending on where they occur in a word, or even on the font style, as I found out when I activated the Farsi keyboard on my computer.

I am hoping, nonetheless, that by spring, I will be able to greet my Persian neighbors with some full-blown sentences.

Now this might seem impractical, except that our local Persian presence is a small part of a major "Persian incursion" since the ayatollahs took over in Iran.

Any Persian knows that one of the largest colonies in the Iranian diaspora is "Tehrangeles," the expatriate name for Los Angeles. Additionally, Beverly Hills has become 40 percent Persian, and the vice mayor is an Iranian.

Since I have yearly occasion to get out to Westwood Village, the part of Los Angeles that is the center of the Persian colony – where kebab cafes abound and shop signs are in Farsi – I'm looking forward to the closest possible thing to visiting Iran.

Hello, by the way, is salaam! It means "peace," which is a good way to start.

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