The young Iranian woman took the perfume the visitor from Europe had brought, looked straight ahead and remained silent for more than a minute.
Having returned to Iran for the first time in nearly two years, the visitor wondered if he had blundered unintentionally. Had the perfume touched off memories of a more carefree Tehran?
Finally she spoke: "Life has become tedious, an odd thing to say perhaps about a revolution I so earnestly wanted to witness, to chart its every twist and turn."
"Now, three years later, there is nothing new, just tedious repetition, idle talk of a coup d'etat, news of 12-year-olds arrested or thousands of teen-agers walking across minefields convinced they were going straight to heaven in the war against Iraq."
"Life has become hazardous, nothing is sure," she added. "How many people were killed in the recent offensive in the south?" she asked almost idly.
"There is no escaping the blood, the cruelty," she said. "It's hard, very hard to put it out of your mind."
"And I'm not even political. So what am I doing here?" She shrugged. In any case, a silly question, she allowed. Because of wartime restrictions practically no exit visas were issued, so she had no choice but to stay.
She counted herself among the fortunate--her well-appointed home in northern Tehran betrayed her middle-class background--since she also had a good job.
Like other working women, she was obliged to wear a head scarf to her office, although so far she had avoided the loose-fitting smock worn over trousers and flat shoes that has become the mark of the truly devout Shiite women in Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's Islamic republic.
Strict adherence to Islamic dress codes is enforced in offices, stores, public places and only the rare woman dares to go bareheaded in the streets where, in theory at least, head scarves are not obligatory.
But a printed poster taped to the door of the Intercontinental Hotel proclaims in English: "According to the principles of the divine law of Islam the entrance without Islamic dress is prohibited."
A zealous hotel employe checks all women to ensure that their scarves are sufficiently modest. At least one woman was refused entrance on the ground that her head was covered by a see-through scarf.
Still, the young woman considered Tehran women lucky. She noted that "in Kashan, Urumieh and Yazd, women have to wear the chador," the ankle-length garment worn over the head, which requires at least one hand to keep in place.
"Our generation knew nothing about mullahs," she said. "The older generation did--and did not trust the mullahs. That is the problem. Just think that when my mother was young and in school the chador was banned.
"Now they say the universities will be reopened soon. But I feel that womens' rights will be increasingly restricted. Will the universities accept as many women as men?"
"When you come down to it, the mullahs think that women must sacrifice themselves for their children and husbands who have all the rights in the Islamic republic."
Nonetheless, life goes on for her and other members of what she admitted had been the privileged classes before the revolution. For fear of being denounced for living in sin by her neighborhood komiteh, or parallel police, she and her lover have contracted a temporary marriage, known in Shiite Islam as sireh.
The komiteh knows everything because it doles out ration books but only after applicants fill out a detailed questionnaire about their private lives.
Relatively few people in this once fun-loving town go out to the movies or restaurants. Iranians' homes have become the focus of their lives. "Even at home the komiteh can make trouble. If the music is too loud, for example," the young woman said, "they'll say, 'there are a lot of martyrs in the war. Are you not ashamed to be having fun?' "
The revolutionary years have taught her to prize good food. "Before I just went to the nearest supermarket and bought the first meat I happened onto. Now there is no place to go, no holidays, no movies, no dresses, so the main pleasure is having a good meal with friends."
North Tehranis earn enough--or have enough money saved up--to eat well thanks to the black market, which the authorities tolerate.
She has come to respect the hezzbollahi, the poor, uprooted youths of south Tehran whom the revolution has used at times of crisis as its shock troops against its enemies.
"Yet, the cultured and cultivated woman that I am likes them in an odd way," she said. "At least they believe in the truth, their truth. Ignorant people, yes, that they are, but I do not see them as enemies."
The revolution has convinced her that "there is nothing good in store for us." After the war with Iraq, the mullahs would purge the armed forces. "The situation gets worse. We have an infinite capacity for misery and suffering," she said. "Where had all the revolutionary idealism gone. There is no real plan to change the country."
Yet, she considered herself lucky not to be in jail. Those early revolutionary days when women demonstrated against wearing the chador now seemed so long ago.
Suddenly she said, "You know the komiteh even kicked out the poor families from south Tehran who had taken over homes here in the north. They were trying to sublet for more money and couldn't pay for the water and electricity and other maintenance costs. So out they went."
"The only ones who have everything they want are the mullahs--they have cars, money, power," she said. "And even if someone throws them out, the next lot will not be better. People here are not educated enough; democracy is impossible."
Thinking back to her prerevolutionary life, she said: "What would an Ingmar Bergman movie have to tell me now?"