Thursday, August 13, 2015

Quick Thought on Expo Milano

Recently at his daily column on Apple Daily, a local Chinese newspaper, a lifestyle writer lamented the time "wasted" at the Expo Milano, questioning the purpose of the fair when all the knowledge can now be found online these days, saying that the Expo is "boring" and just like another "agricultural exhibition". Poor him, and I wonder whether he has given up on traveling altogether since the world can also be seen with a few clicks on Google Map as well. I couldn't help but rolling my eyes when I read the column.


Tree of Life - the centerpiece sculpture
With the theme of "Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life", food can be found everywhere inside the Expo site
Well I happened to be at the Expo Milano too a month ago as we concluded our whirlwind tour across 4 cities in 2 weeks, and I enjoyed my experience there. I could easily devote my next 10 posts solely on that experience, going through pavilions by pavilions, sharing my thoughts about them, the things I saw, the food I ate, and the people I met. But I decided not to, not because the Expo was not worth writing about, but it's impossible to describe everything in words. So I will just summarize into this short post.

The Milano Expo 2015 is part of the long history of the World Exhibition, starting in London in 1851 and last held in Shanghai in 2010. The theme this time is "Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life" with more than 180 exhibitors (from 145 countries plus organizations) showcasing their own cultures and traditions, or exploring the issues concerning food and diet. All these were held on the ground in the suburb of Milan built especially for the occasion, about an hour away from city center by metro or train.

Japan Pavilion - a beautifully choreographed and narrated journey celebrating the "harmonious diversity" of washoku, the Japanese culinary tradition

Azerbaijian Pavilion
Inside the Spanish Pavilion - celebrating the unique Spanish cooking, both modern and traditional
The Korea Pavilion
The Israel Pavilion - the food story told from the "land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey" (Deuteronomy 8:8)

Urban Farming Showcase
Sure, there were some pavilions which were no more than a few poorly-assembled exhibition boards and a lame food counter housed in a fancy building, but many countries and organizations do take this opportunity to celebrate their own food culture and products, or showcasing the history and the latest advancement in development in the chain of food production. With a common theme, you could imagine most of the exhibitions were surrounding the topics of sustainability, balance between industrialization and tradition, maximization of farmland through creative use of space (quite a number of pavilions built with small-scale urban farms inside) and socioeconomic issues concerning food and diet including food shortage, malnutrition, obesity, uneven distribution of food and alike. Many were both informative and entertaining, and some left you with serious food for thoughts afterwards - well, pun intended. It's also a good opportunity to learn the food culture from places that were lesser-known to the world with live demonstration, video presentations and interactive exhibitions. Japan, Korea, France, Spain, Israel, Azerbaijan, Slovenia and Argentina were the ones I enjoyed the most during my 2-day visit.

The USA Pavilion

Food Truck Nation - featuring classic American food truck items on the menu
The USA Pavilion was perhaps the most talked-about one, with the theme focusing on the unique aspects of American culinary culture, from special dishes in traditional celebration to the proliferation of "food trucks" as the next step moving from the mass-scale fast food production. The exhibition itself was a bit cliche since most of us were familiar with the US food culture, but I did enjoy the food at the food truck park located right behind - guess I just missed a good old smoked beef brisket sub cooked Texan style. They also have the best souvenir shop too, in my opinion.

Palazzo Italia - the main Italian Pavilion building
Being the exhibition by the host country and the largest structure inside the Expo ground, to me the Palazzo Italia was a bit of a toss. They were the one with the longest waiting the line, naturally, and while they did make an effort of educating the public of many aspects of Italian food culture, in retrospect I won't think I missed anything if I didn't go. Brazil was another pavilion many people talked about but other than that giant suspension bridge stretched across the pavilion which surely drew quite a crowd, I found it a bit lack in real substance. Likewise for the UK pavilion shaped as a bee hive, trying to highlight the importance of the local bee farming industry and its contribution to biodiversity, but I thought the Slovenian Pavilion, with exhibitions going along a similar theme, did a much better job in educating the public.

The Swiss Pavilion - Simple but Profoundly Challenging
Take as much as you want - everything seems to be free and abundant, but are we putting enough consideration for the need of our future generation as we freely use up the resources now?
The Swiss Pavilion is perhaps the simplest of all yet the one I enjoyed the most. Instead of showcasing the latest development to tackle issues on food shortage or sustainability, like many country pavilions do, the Swiss Pavilion is more like a social experiment to let visitors reflect on how their own behavior could affect the world in the long term. During the 6-month exhibition, the site was turned into a giant warehouse filled with food items symbolizing our natural resources (sponsored by various Swiss companies, well, mainly Nestle), and visitors are free to take whatever displayed in whatever quantity they so wish - but if the earlier visitors took too much, that means there won't be enough for the future ones as they won't be replenished once they ran out. That did let you reflect upon how the issues of over-consumption or us taking "free" resources for granted could lead to the long-term irrevocable problems for our future generations, hence echoing the Expo theme of "Feeding the Planet". I would be curious to check back and see how this panned out towards the end as when I was there quite a few items were already running low in quantity.

My Day 1 Expogram
It's also fascinating to see how new technology works to enhance visitor's experience through interactive devices and visual effects. Many exhibitions have their own smart phone apps designed to enhance visitor experience - for example, in Japan Pavilion, you can download images and information automatically by sliding your iPhone into a special lot or scan a QR barcode, or enjoy a virtual traditional Japanese meal on the touch-screen TV in the special "dining theater"; in Germany Pavilion each visitor will carry a "Seed Board" tablet to view images, texts and videos. The "passport" has long been an Expo tradition - for which this little booklet could let visitors go around and collect "stamps" from different pavilions as keepsake souvenir. This time around in addition of the physical "passport", visitors could also use the special smart phone app to record their visit. At the end, the app will provide you an "Expogram" with full details including the timeline and other key statistics of your visit. For example, I knew I walked a total of 22km, burnt 2000 kCal and covered 57% of the "world" over the 2 days at the Expo, starting from the USA Pavilion on Day 1, and finished with dinner at Peck on Day 2.

Coca-cola Pavilion - one of the few exhibitions operated by the private sector. This Freestyle Coke machine has more than 100 different soda formula available from around the world and you could mix and match yourself - say one part of cherry Coke with one part of grapefruit Fanta and a dash of Powerade?
Staff at Illy demonstrating this prototype machine which can brew your "personalized" coffee based on your choice of taste profile, selectable using a special iPad application. Then the machine can pick the right combination of beans, grind and brew your cup on the fly.
The water station - always the most crowded spot on the ground.
Czech Pavilion is perhaps the most child-friendly. Outdoor pool at the entrance!
There were also other small things I loved at the Expo. The free water station throughout the ground proved to be an oasis in such a hot day in Milan - they even came with a choice of still or sparkling so people can refill their bottle with. And I secretly enjoyed the Coke Pavilion offering unlimited free pour of soft drinks inside, even though fast food and unhealthy drinks weren't the most politically correct things to like these days. I also loved the curator-guided tour at the Coffee Cluster featuring a group of coffee-growing nations, learning more of the world coffee consumption, growth, and the latest technology of coffee brewing (demonstrated by the staff from Illy, of course). And the many ethnic foods available around - I enjoyed the time hanging out at the Dutch pavilion having Worstenbrood, Gouda cheese and beer, or having a sip of the Arabic tea with mint and cardamom inside the Kuwaiti Pavilion.

Vinitaly Pavilion
The Vinitaly - the world's largest trade fair dedicated to Italian wines - also hosted a pavilion inside the Expo ground, allowing visitors to taste through the different Italian wine regions. That provided me a perfect place away from the heat while enjoying the food and drink inside. Plus of course, the dinner held at the pop-up restaurant at downtown Milan in association with the US Pavilion on July 4 was THE highlight of my entire trip, and the quiet dinner I enjoyed inside the Italian Pavilion on the last day to conclude my visit.

It's good that I made a little detour to drop by Milan for this and for my very first Expo experience! If you come here for that serious "epiphany" moment that provide you with the insight for the panacea to end world hunger, you may come home disappointed. But I am glad that I learned something and had fun - I am sure most visitors did, well, except perhaps that poor columnist I mentioned in the beginning. Milan was hot and exhausting when I was there, and I couldn't feel my legs after non-stop walking and standing, but I think it's all worth it.

Expo Milano 2015: www.expo2015.org

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