“Expo has no sense!”
(in a thick Italian accent)
Yeah, I’m inclined to agree, and I think you will too by the end of this. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
First I need to explain what Expo is.
The World Expo, or World’s Fair, is kind of like the Olympics for culture and development. It happens every 2 or 3 years, each time in a different city. The first World Expo was held in London in 1851, and since then it has been hosted be cities all over the world from Japan, to Brazil, to the good ole’ U.S.A. The next one is scheduled to be held in Astana, Kazakhstan in 2017. After that will be Dubai, U.A.E. in 2020. Every Expo has a different theme showcasing a different cultural facet or scientific frontier. Here are a few examples:
Yeosu, South Korea
The Living Ocean and Coast
Better City, Better Life
Water and Sustainable Development
…and so on, and so forth.
That brings us to Expo 2015: Milan. The theme was “Feeding the Planet, Energy of Life” which is a very condescending way of just saying “Food.” The Milan Expo was about food, and I did not hate it. I actually can't think of anything I'd rather it have been about. I showed up HUNGRY!
Thanks to my Italian sugar mamma (thanks again Camilla!), who gets free tickets to events like this one, I got in for free. This ticket would have cost about 40 EUR (43.46 USD) otherwise. It wasn't as much as the 200+ EUR (217.28 USD) that I saved when she got me tickets to see the opera at La Scala, but it was still awesome.
The event center where Expo was being held was about a 45 minute metro ride outside of the city, next to the Fiera Fair Grounds. Below is a scan of the map that was distributed to everybody at the entrance. It may not look like it, but this area is more than 2 kilometers (1.24 miles) across.
Expo works kind of like your typical high school science fair where every contestant gets a booth. Likewise, at Expo, every country gets a piece of real estate on which to build their exhibit (their "booth"). The location and size of their plot of land depends on how much they pay. Some wealthy countries, unsurprisingly, bought huge plots of land and built extravagant, modern, miniaturized museums showcasing their culture's cuisine. Some poorer countries, also unsurprisingly, purchased shabby little show rooms that were clearly much cheaper. And then there were the other poor countries (*cough* Angola *cough*) that had clearly gone into some serious debt in order to prove to the world how well they were doing. Indeed, there were some seriously impoverished countries that had sunk hundreds of millions of (US) dollars into building their exhibits. I walked by some of them and thought "Really? This is a better use of federal funds than providing your own people with basic medical care?"
It would be one thing if Expo was forever, but it's not. Expo runs for about a month. At the end of this month, everything will be torn down. Billions of dollars went into creating this miniature city, and it will be torn down in a month. I literally can't think of anything more wasteful. Expo is out of control.
"Expo has no sense!" my host said, exasperatedly, as she explained the inner workings of the event to me.
"Expo *makes* no sense," I corrected, "Haha but ya, no, definitely not."
Arriving At Expo 2015
Anyway, there's no point crying over spilled milk! By the time I arrived at the Fiera Fair Grounds, all those wasted mountains of money were a sunk cost. There was nothing left to be done but enjoy the flamboyance of it all. We live in a privileged time, after all. So I joined the thousands of Italians in line, went through security, and through the decadent gates. What I saw on the other side was pretty jaw-dropping.
It was just so BIG! I wasn't sure whether to be impressed by the scale and extravagance of it all, or troubled by what a massive waste of resources it constituted. Either way, I was blown away. Every country has put together the most interesting, creative, exhibits! Every building was a work of art, and featured restaurants serving delicious cultural dishes. There were so many people too! There was actually a multi-story restaurant serving only Nutella! There were jars of Nutella the size of small cars, which is every girl's dream, right?
There was too much there for any one person to do, see, or eat. It would have taken days to go to every country's exhibit, so I had to be selective. I visited the exhibits of the Czech Republic, Angola, Sudan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Solvenia, United States, and Argentina. These exhibits were attractive to me because they either had an amazing building, or no line. Mostly it was the 'no line' thing that sold me. The more ridiculous the building, the longer the line to get in. I waited in a few of these lines, but I didn't have all the time in the world. Here they are in chronological order...
When I entered Expo, this was the first building I saw, so I decided to czech it out... Get it? It was pretty ridiculous, inside and out. I wasn't sure if I was in a modern art museum, or if the museum was the piece of modern art. I also wasn't sure how all of what I was seeing pertained to the Czech Republic or its food, but, spread out through the buildings 4 levels, there were multiple bars serving a wide array of Czech beers. I guess that's all they needed. Here are some pictures:
In a time before this blog, I traveled to Prague. It was, of course, a beautiful city, but I'd be lying if I said it that this exhibit reminded me of it even one bit. It was cool, but random.
The line to get in here was insane, but I waited in it anyway. The building was massive, easily one of the biggest structures there. The inside was even more impressive. Walkways wound up 5 stories to the roof of the structure. Everywhere I looked there were massive screens flashing compilations of Angolan people, culture and food.
As I walked through, the only thing I kept thinking was that Angola CANNOT afford this. One of my closest friends' father is a doctor in Angola, so I happen to know for a fact they can't even afford to provide their own people with malaria medication. You'd think that would make my friend's father an indispensable asset to them. They need all the help they can get, right? The Angolan government apparently doesn't see it that way. They are so concerned with keeping up appearances that they will often try to prevent doctors like this from working at all. God forbid that people find out that Angola needs any help! Well I'm sorry to tell you this, Angola, but I think the secret is out, and the large fortune that you sank into this exhibit would probably have been better spent providing your citizens with malaria treatment.
Unlike Angola, there was no line here. The building was much more modest, which was a nice change of pace after Angola. Inside was basically a big gift shop, and a restaurant, so I can see how Sudan might have even turned a profit off of this. Okay Sudan, I'll let this one slide.
And we're back to countries that have better things they could be spending their time and money on. After the earthquake, Nepal's got a full plate, but apparently not too full that they can't sink millions of dollars into building a miniature Buddhist monastery in Milan. Whatever Nepal.
To their credit though, this was easily one of the coolest exhibits at Expo. It was beautifully done. It was completely senseless of course, but beautiful.
This was a pretty modest exhibit, as it probably should have been. I have been to Bangladesh, and it ain't pretty... at least not from a socio-economic standpoint. In other, more abstract ways, it was beautiful.
There was no line to get in, so I took a swing through for a trip down memory lane. Bangladesh was one of the most interesting places I've ever been.
I'll get into some more expensive real estate next.
Solvenia had a long line to get in, but there were giant screens outside the building to keep the line entertained. The screens showed a continuous highlight reel of the most beautiful parts of Slovenia. It looked amazing. I'll be putting it on my list for my next visit to Europe.
Once I got inside it was even better. There were airplanes hanging from the ceiling. There were long sandboxes... for some reason. It was very cool.
Home sweet home! I walked into this monument to America with high hopes. It had a very vintage them to it. It was stylized like 1950s propaganda, which I thought was tastefully done, although maybe not the most universally appealing theme. Once I got inside though, things started to go downhill.
Crowds entering America's exhibition would pass through a series of movie rooms. Each room played a short film about a different region's food, or a different facet of the American culinary experience. At times it felt like whoever created these films was trying wayyy to hard to fill them with politically correct buzzwords. "Green" "Sustainable Agriculture" "Environmental Policy" To my American ears, it all felt painfully forced. Blegh!
At one point, during a film about farming, pictures of different kinds of crops were flashing across the screen. Some people were whispering to each other behind us in Italian and my friend leaned over to translate what they were saying for me.
"Ahh, so the Americans have discovered vegetables now?"
Wine and Steak! That is literally all that they served. Isn't that awesome? I could live on those 2 things alone. Atop a few flights of stairs that wound upwards in giant circles, they had a strange room full of tiny wooden figures carrying out farm activities on repeat. The way they moved conjured in my mind images of the tiny clay-mation dolls often featured in the beginning of Tim Burton films. It was a weird vibe, but it was worth it for that wine and steak.
Except that I didn't have any wine or steak. The lines were too long. I really hate lines, so I decided to grab a slice of pizza once I got back into the center of Milan instead.
Yup, that's Expo! All of that has almost certainly been demolished since then, so I hope you've enjoyed this snapshot of the wastefulness of the 21st century. It was a lot of fun though. Anybody who says otherwise needs to lighten up.
But on a serious note, wastefulness is not the only thing that is wrong with Expo. In Milan it is apparently an item of common knowledge that the Italian mafia has a lot to do with the funding and operations of this event. Yes, the mafia. Believe it or not, the mafia is still a very influential force in Italy. The mob bosses maintain close working relationships with government officials, and their "business" is just a part of life for most Italians. The situation differs from city to city in Italy, but it's always a factor. Most evidence of the mafia will be invisible to travelers, but rest assured, it's there.
Surprised? Did you think the mafia wasn't active anymore?
Next, I caught a train and headed to the beautiful Ligurian coast. Genoa, here I come!