During our Milan visit, apart from churches, we did visit the EXPO Milano 2015 (the EXPO) where my daughter (yes, the Ed.) works. This was our first world event of this kind so I went to the official webpage to get the basics.
The EXPO’s core theme is (it runs until October 2015) “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life” reflecting upon and seeking solutions to our present world contradictions: 870 million people undernourished in the period 2010-2012, approximately 2.8 million deaths from diseases related to obesity or to being overweight in the same period and 1.3 billion tons of foods wasted every year. “A rather difficult theme to dealt with” was my first thought.
In the EXPO website the organizers say: “For these reasons, we need to make conscious political choices, develop sustainable lifestyles, and use the best technology to create a balance between the availability and the consumption of resources”… “Oh, I have heard this before” was my second contemplation but I continued getting information on the event despite the “deja-vu” sensation.
I learnt that the EXPO occupies 1.1 million square meters and that its design follows the ancient Romans’ urban planning of two intersecting wide avenues named Cardo and Decumano that cross in Piazza Italia. Along these two avenues you find the pavilions of the participating countries as well as public areas dedicated to squares, events and catering. Countries with no individual pavilions are grouped in nine clusters around the production of certain food: Islands, Sea and Food; Rice; Cocoa and Chocolate; Coffee; Fruits and Legumes; Spices; Cereals and Tubers; Bio-Mediterraneum (Sic) and Arid Zones.
There are also four thematic areas: the Pavilion Zero that presents the history of humankind through its links with food; the Future Food District, that describes how technology will change food storage, distribution, purchase, and consumption; the Biodiversity Park , a large garden that reproduces several ecosystems and the Children’s Park a fun area where youngsters learn about the EXPO.
I felt dwarfed by such large event so I gave serious consideration to a suitable vehicle to move around its large area. During an earlier walk to the Navigli district I came across an option that looked appropriate: a giant snail. Clearly the complexity of the event justified slow movement in order to absorb its concepts and proposals so trials were done on its suitability. It was soon abandoned as the creature, despite being immobile, was quite aggressive against its mature rider and it refused to move despite my original verbal and subsequently physical encouragement!
Being lazy by birth, the first priority on arrival at the EXPO was to find a means of transportation. Bicycles were out as these are restricted to EXPO staff. I saw a couple of other possibilities that were tried, again, unsuccessfully because of other technical reasons: either too expensive to rent or too large and limited to VIPs.
Our failure meant that walking was the only option and by the end of the day we completed -according to my pedometer- a staggering 26 km!
Our early morning arrival (to comply with our daughter’s office hours) meant that there were still very few visitors and, in my naive mind, I prepared to visit a few stands before it got too crowded. My enthusiasm was premature as stands only opened an hour later and, of course; by that time queues had already developed! As the Pavilion Zero was apparently the more emblematic, we joined its short queue.
It was impressively large and visually grand. From a spot with its creators at the EXPO web page I quote the words of Davide Rampello: “We wanted to tell a story which begins from the earliest period of human history, through symbols and myths, the different stages of evolution and man’s relationship with Nature – the domestication of animals and plants, and the introduction of tools to work the land and conserve food. The story ends with the current paradox regarding nutrition…”
The display aims at creating the need to move towards something new, something different in the future. Although this is not clearly spelled out, the synergies between the “UN Zero Hunger Challenge. United for a Sustainable World” and the EXPO’s theme are highlighted through a number of UN panels. Although the display was visually stimulating, somehow the message did not get home to me. I attributed this to my “food security burnout” while thinking that it may be a statement suited to the new generation. However, a spark of worry appeared in my mind.
From the Pavilion Zero we walked through the Decumano where most other pavilions are. The popular ones, Brazil, Japan, UK and Israel to name a few that come to mind, were already showing long lines of visitors so we walked on and reached the Piazza Italia where the crowds really gathered. I noted that most of them were Italians, clearly keen to see what their country offered. Many companies and institutions were present, particularly from the food and drink sectors. There were also a myriad of school children at the Piazza. Realizing that some school-visiting day coincided with our visit, we moved on.
We did manage to visit some individual country pavilions such as the justifiably modest one from Uruguay and some -not so modest- from Arab countries. An extreme queuing effort eventually took us inside the UK pavilion as we had been tipped that it was very nice. In it you follow the journey of the honeybee while exploring some of the contributions that the UK brings to the global food challenge. The “cross-pollination” metaphor is used to describe the exchange of ideas, skills and knowledge and the theme also stresses that Britain is a “hive” of activity. Its highlight is a 17-metre high metal structure, a stylized beehive. While inside it somehow you experience sounds and lights that reflect the activity in a beehive. I found the concept very original and even more so when I understood that the beehive is an actual living one located in the UK!
Unfortunately, through a combination of deafness and placing myself in the wrong spots of the structure I failed to hear the bees! The failure was entirely mine as other people surrounding me were clearly enjoying what they heard! What I did not fail to see was the offer of British food (by famous chefs) and drink at rather high prices! A common motif throughout most exhibits!
Crowds continued to grow and, as lunchtime arrived, we decided to have a break and join thousand others for lunch in one of the many venues available. While my wife and daughter caught up with their news after lunch, I sought a quiet place to hide from the masses. Unfortunately many other visitors had the same thought and all possible snug places were taken! As the need for the daily siesta intensified my standards lowered and I finally settled for what looked like a peaceful enough -though hard place- and moved in without hesitation.
Aided by listening to my favourite Argentinian radio over the Internet (a wonderful creation!) sleep did not take long to come. About half an hour later I woke up with the clear feeling of being watched.
Once I located my brain and relocated myself in time and space I peered through my eyelids to explore my surroundings. I saw watching the old man were kids, probably attracted by my snoring? A quick check showed that I was free to move so I was not Gulliver! Luckily the little people became children and, smiling kindly, I stood up slowly, a bit sore but “recharged” and walked away. My siesta had clearly taken place at one of the Children’s Parks “…where the young folk can learn about the themes of Expo Milano 2015 while having fun.” I had clearly provided part of the amusement…
The queues were still there in the afternoon so we decided to spend the rest of the day visiting the much less crowded food clusters. It was very pleasing to see the various representations from countries we had lived in or visited. In particular time was spent at the Kenya and Zimbabwe stands where we immediately connected with the people there and spent a while talking and walking with them to see other stands in the neighborhood. I immediately understood what the Italians were doing!
At sunset it was time to go. It was a tired group that walked back to the EXPO train station. I had flashes of vertical agriculture and hydroponics, proposed as useful technologies, air-purifying paint and scores of visiting VIPs and politicians (Mr. Putin was there visiting the Russian pavilion!), the final mountain of discarded food and garbage from the Pavilion Zero and the units used at the EXPO to collect five different litter types! However, solutions to food waste were not many or perhaps not clearly addressed and I missed them.
My lasting impression confirms my foreboding that the core theme of “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life” was a hard one to tackle. Although a gallant effort is made to present it, my impression was that food was plentiful and available at the restaurants of the EXPO! Not much was presented on “energy for life” and how we would feed the ever-increasing world population. Has humanity run out of solid ideas on how to feed its ever growing self!