Italian…Chinese?

In Paris they simply stared when I spoke to them in French; I never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language” ~Mark Twain

The two words in the title are words that I never would have thought could combine into one coherent phrase.  I guess it’s not really a coherent phrase in the title, either, but it will as soon as I declare that twice now, here in Orvieto, I have had Italian Chinese food.  Italian Chinese food in the sense that it was Chinese food made in Italy, not that they did something weird like put sweet and sour sauce on spaghetti or something like that.

Compared to American Chinese food, I have to say that Italian Chinese food wins in being more authentic.  But really, was I expecting anything different?  I’ve been there twice now, and while the sweet and sour wasn’t quite was I expected, it was still up to par.  And when I went back and ordered jiao dz, they looked like legitimate jiao dz, not this “ravioli” stuff they try to pass off in the states.  And it was cheap.  Not as cheap as Taiwan, but cheap enough that, when compared to American Chinese food that if you even want to get close to something authentic you have to pay an arm and a leg, Italian Chinese wins.

I’m still not quite sure how the concept of a Chinese restaurant fits in with the rest of Italian culture.  I have yet to see any Italian families sitting down for a meal at the Chinese restaurant.  It’s definitely a very family-run restaurant, which is typical of Italy–the mother is inside cooking, while either the daughter or the son takes the orders.  But the restaurant does take-out, which is so foreign to the Italian mind where a meal is something to be savored slowly and enjoyed.  The idea of take-out contradicts all of these notions, and yet, the restaurant exists.

The decorations are also a little…unique.  Sitting inside is like a fusion of Asian and Italian cultures, but more than just Chinese.  There are the typical stone lion statues that stand as sentries at the door, but behind these, elephant statues peek out, reminding me more of Thailand than anything Chinese I’ve ever seen.  Along the upper wall near the ceiling, red banners wish the patrons good luck and happy spring, but then there are vines and lilac plants peeking down from the terrace that bring a strongly Tuscan flavor to the place.  Basically, sitting inside, you wouldn’t know what country you were in, or what country the restaurant wanted you to be in.

But probably my favorite part of the Chinese restaurant experience has been the languages.  The first time I went to eat there, a group of eight or so of us when together.  I debated whether or not to actually speak Chinese.  We walked in, and one of the weirdest experiences was hearing Italian words come out of the mouth of an Asian as the daughter greeted us.  All the Asians I’ve known have spoken either Chinese and English, or Korean or Japanese along with Chinese and English.  Of course it makes sense that, living in Italy, they would speak Chinese, but that was definitely not the norm.  We soon figured out that she spoke English almost as well as she spoke Italian.  Before we ordered, my friends convinced me to start speaking Chinese to her, so the next time she came out, I asked her if she spoke Chinese.  After a shell-shocked expression, she said yes, but I think she was just so confused that a white person who had formerly spoken English to her now was speaking Chinese she couldn’t really figure out what was going on and proceeded to answer my Chinese with Italian.

The next time I went was even more humorous.  This time the son was taking orders, and I decided that I’d probably get farther with Chinese than if we tried doing some weird Italian-English mixture, so I walked in and told him I wanted take out.  Again, shell-shocked expression.  It took him a second for it to sink in that he was better of speaking Chinese to me than Italian, since first he told me how long it would take in Italian before repeating it in Chinese.  After that, he got the idea that Chinese was safer, and even went so far as to try and have a conversation with me in Chinese.  Unfortunately, I’m not as fluent in Chinese as I’d like to be.  I was always able to respond, but I’m actually not quite sure that my responses fit with the questions.  Oh well.  It’s one of those funny things where languages are more than the words that make them up, but more the ideas that need to be gotten across.  My friend who was with me asked me what I said in Chinese, and it took me a second to actually translate, just because the modes of thinking are so different.  But in their minds, I guess I’ll always remain the “weird white girl who randomly speaks some Chinese but not Italian, and yet lives in the little town of Orvieto.”  That’s fine with me.

As of today, I’ve officially survived my second class, covering Dante’s Inferno and Purgatorio.  Ironically, the class was closely intertwined with Virgil’s Aeneid, since much of Dante alludes to Virgil.  I guess the title for my blog has become more appropriate than I thought it was when I created it, since the class forced me to read about Aeneas as well as Dante.  I also now know more about Dante’s political ideas than I ever hoped to.  Two more months remaining, and Saturday is Rome and the Colosseum.

Happy Easter Weekend!

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