Life in Italy
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A Brutally Honest Review of EXPO Milano 2015

The biggest winners at the EXPO? The designers, architects and illustrators who were commissioned to design the pavilions and the content inside.

Yesterday, I made the journey over to the World’s Fair, which started on May 1 with a mild case of anti-capitalist protests and angry op-eds about the fact that the lead sponsors include McDonald’s and CocaCola–companies that don’t exactly jive with the tagline of “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life.”

A few things to note: the site IS in fact there. Like the lead up to any Olympics, haters gonna hate and say that there will be no doors on the bathroom stalls or something like that. There is actually a railway stop right outside the fairgrounds, which is quite convenient. It is where I met up with my friend Joe (who I had many an adventure with in Buenos Aires) and his girlfriend Paola, studying abroad in Florence and up to Milan to rendezvous for the day.

Without really knowing what was going on, we took our first steps inside the UN “Zero Hunger Challenge” pavilion. All in all, quite a sanitized, informative exhibit about issues like desertification plus this huge commodity exchange board was quite impressive.

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The EXPO is organized in several ways–by country, by cluster and by company.

This is what the “Main Street” looks like. I took this photo from the far end, where the tired crowds hadn’t managed to reach. We’re talking like a couple mile walk from the main entrance, I think. And seriously, thank God that they have these canvas coverings. Seriously. It was only about 80 yesterday and it’s only May…

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Anyways, the basic setup is that each country has a pavilion to presumably discuss biodiversity, regional products and culinary traditions. What most of the pavilions actually are: people in “traditional” clothing standing next to misting fans while some kind of house music is pumped out.

Let’s unpack this and talk about some of the more memorable pavilions. Note: we probably went in about 10-15 because some of them had very long lines (in this sense, EXPO often felt like an international amusement park) and some of them were just too far off this main road (in this sense, I felt sorry for the smaller countries who potentially had not put up enough money for some prime real estate).

I was excited to see the pavilion for my dear Stati Uniti. I had read interviews with the designer, articles from the James Beard Foundation, and was looking forward to something quite progressive. But what was inside? Sweating staff members wearing blue jeans and navy jackets with gold buttons hovering around a big, touchscreen air-hockey shaped table where you were supposed to match a “problem” with a “solution” by pushing things like “obesity” over to someone over at the other side of the table “to deal with” by pressing down with 3 fingers. The monitor didn’t respond to my fingertips and this just seemed silly.

So we kept walking. There was a booth where Wallgreen’s had more touchscreens advertising low cost prescriptions. Weird.

We kept going. We reached the main presentation section called the “Great American Foodscape.” It was cool and dark and there were lots of charming illustrated videos. However, the 6 selected topics made me squirm a little bit. They were:

1. Immigrant traditions. A presumably Italian guy arrives to Ellis Island with about 5 serving sizes of pasta and meatballs (since when have you seen that in Italy?!) which he enjoys with his family around the table before putting it in a metal can to be manufactured. Ouch.

2. BBQ. Ok, maybe this is quite unique. I guess.

3. On-the-Go Food. Sure, maybe Americans have mastered the art of takeaway food. As I’m not a genius in the kitchen, I admittedly find myself sometimes here in Italy wanting to pick up a pre-prepared salad or main dish from the grocery store, but that doesn’t exist, so I make something simple. Same goes for coffee. Instead of drinking espresso standing up, I miss having a cup of coffee to enjoy over a longer period of time. But is the “grab and go” something really to be boasting about?

4. Artisan food. Don’t get me wrong, I am all about the artisan/ small batch producers having worked at an organization that recognizes outstanding ones for taste and sustainability. But I would say that this attention to crafting good food and respecting ingredients is in the minority. And again, not something unique.

5. Farm-to-table. Yes, it’s true that America sort of kick-started the farmers’ market trend. Yes, my heart did melt a little bit when I went to Chez Panisse Restaurant last summer and had a bowl of fruit (just fruit, really) for dessert. But I also know so many chefs who groan at this term. Well, maybe it’s a step in the right direction.

6. Thanksgiving. Appropriately diverse enough to include mixed race and mixed cuisine tables–think sweet potatoes with marshmallows but also Chinese dumplings. All in all though, this video was a series of overcrowded tables packed with high-calorie foods and turkeys bred to be slaughtered for this one day of the year. Eh.

After all of that, there was a little air-conditioned room discussing American regional cuisine and featuring lots of maps and state-oriented posters. Perhaps the most amusing part of all of this was an old Italian man arguing/talking (you can never really tell) very loudly with his wife about what the capital of Washington state was.

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My radar went on when I saw a sign advertising “Food Truck Nation” but when we made it over there, the display of 5 food trucks each offering the same exact menu (coleslaw? kale salad? fires?) seemed a little bit sad. Ugh.

Some other memorable pavilions include the following:

1. Turkmenistan. They had a huge fountain out front that was a little bit overzealous for the amount of space so there was water splashing everywhere.

2. Iran. They were handing out Iranian flags at the entrance. I felt a little bit weird about that. Inside there were some lovely smelling flowers, lots of info about saffron and pomegranates and some very un-enthusiastic musicians playing the drums in the back.

3. Spain. This takes the cake for my favorite pavilion. There was a great mix of illustrations, videos, information and then this cool techno-ish installation with plates at the end.

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4. Estonia. The main attraction in the Estonian pavilion were the swings. More than just a photo opp, you generated a few watts while propelling yourself back and forth.

5. Mexico. This one was a bit frustrating because you were at the mercy of this silly barcode that wouldn’t scan in my case but apparently gave you the name of a crop to follow along and learn more about as you went through the site. There were some touch screens with information about medicinal herbs and several creative art installations. Overall, a festive, colorful pavilion.

And now for the surprises…

We saw a sign for “Future Food Pavilion.” That sounded great. It took us into this big warehouse...that turned out to be a Coop grocery store. Like, you could buy your yogurt and meat and then carry it around with you all day in the 80 degree heat. No thanks. The open-drawer refrigerators didn’t impress me that much, but what something admittedly kind of cool were the infographics that came up when you touched a certain product on a touchscreen (if the cursor was working) displaying the nutritional breakdown, origin and carbon footprint. Now, I would have liked for the origin to be a bit more specific–saying “Italy” doesn’t really tell you more than it already does on the packaging. Same with the meat. Where are they getting this ridiculously low carbon footprint data from?

Maybe I’m being overly harsh here. For the average consumer, this is probably mind-blowingly awesome. But at the same time, I’m looking at all of the materials used to construct these refrigerators and thinking about the percentage of these products that will ACTUALLY be purchased and consumed by EXPO visitors and how much will be thrown away and I’m not convinced that this is taking us in a positive direction.

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Another headscratcher was how certain countries were organized by raw materials–such as grains or chocolates. This basically grouped together export-dependent countries into a tiny space rather than giving each of them to have their own individual identity. Sigh.

And now we come to the topic of Slow Food. There has been much controversy in the lead up to EXPO about if and how Slow Food, an organization founded somewhat in opposition to the opening of a McDonald’s in Rome in the 80’s, could be at an event where McDonald’s itself was one of the main sponsors (and was in fact located within french fry smelling distance of the fast food stall handing out Happy Meal balloons). Before seeing the site, I came down on the side of: “It’s unfortunate that this has become so big and corporate, but with several million visitors coming here over the course of 6 months, I think it’s a good thing for Slow Food to have a presence and have the opportunity to present its message to the public.”

To get to the Slow Food pavilion, where sadly some of the letters are already falling off the side of the building after 12 days of action, you have to walk about half an hour from the entrance. I’m not kidding. It’s like running towards a mountain that you think is close but you never quite get there. The pavilion is a group of wooden buildings divided into three sections: one for education, one for cheese/wine and one for events with an herb garden in the middle. Due to the fact that it’s so far from everything else, there weren’t a lot of people in there–which is a negative for their exposure but a positive in the sense that it was calm. You could just walk around and learn and talk.

Now, I am up close and personal with Slow Food given that my university was founded in collaboration it and I DO concede that it has its faults–lots of talk but no action, a lot of “old guard” fancy pants people who like to swirl their wine and a lack of organization among other hot topics. But I have to say, this pavilion was the only place that talked about the issue of what was going to happen to the building after October 31 rolled around. There was a book where you could jot down your ideas for how to make the world a more good, clean and fair place. There was a space to sample a rotation of Presidium cheeses and wines paired by the Banca del Vino.

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After a full day of walking around the EXPO, from the EDM music at the Dutch pavilion to staring up at the palace-like structures of countries like Qatar, I was just disappointed, plain and simple. I came in expecting something more innovative and less Ministry of Tourism-sanctioned. The whole thing felt like Disneyland–you didn’t want to wait in the long lines unless what was inside was “worth it.” Almost every pavilion has a restaurant inside, but instead of wanting to explore “global cuisine,” I found myself not hungry. (Well, until we got to the cheese at the end.)

I’m glad I went and saw what it’s all about. That being said, I don’t think I’ll be back. In the meantime, I’m curious to see how the media responds to it as time goes by. All in all, it felt sort of like a tasteless, forgettable meal at a restaurant you were excited to check out. What a bummer.

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