The Tree of Life at the Milano Expo 2015 (Photo: Michael Luongo)
It’s taken me nearly 30 years to visit 90 countries, and that’s not even half the world. A faster way, at least to literally taste the world, is to head to Milan, Italy for Milano Expo 2015, the current version of the World’s Fair which runs until October 31st. In just a few days, I traveled several continents, tasted random food, danced tango with South Americans, boogeyed with Eastern Europeans, hobnobbed with Africans, and rode (fake) Middle Eastern camels. Imagine Epcot Center on steroids and you’ve got the picture.
One of my first stops was a patriotic visit to the U.S.A. pavilion, with its theme of American Food 2.0. It is not far from the heart of the Expo, along the Decumano, or main pedestrian causeway, and its intersection with the Cardo where the Italian pavilions and Tree of Life dominate. These causeways create a cross like structure that ties the Expo grounds historically with ancient Roman camp grounds, paying respect to Italy’s millennia long influence on the world.
The entrance to the American pavilion. (Photo: Michael Luongo)
The American pavilion is open and inviting, with a refreshing mist bath at its entrance. An enormous flight of stairs leads to its main level, where a video of President Barack Obama welcomes you. I found a familiar clop-clop sound under my feet as I walked through, and was told that the flooring is made of planks from the Coney Island board walk destroyed in Hurricane Sandy. Dozens of American college students serve as guides here. Most are wholesomely Midwestern, clean cut and perky, making me think many were potentially future State Department employees, getting an early start on diplomacy.
My favorite part of the U.S.A. pavilion was upstairs on the Terrace, with its panoramic view of the Expo grounds and surrounding Milan suburbs. It’s partly shaded by the world’s largest smart glass roof, a technology discussed by Joseph Harary of Research Frontiers in a Terrace Talk moderated by Mitchell Davis.
The selfie point in the American Pavilion. (Photo: Michael Luongo)
From the Terrace I realized the nautical theme continues, with the entire pavilion narrowing into ship form, its prow seeming to loom over the Decumano. In that spot I saw countless couples posing for kissing selfies, the Expo grounds spread behind them. Who could believe that in Italy, a country so well known for love, the Expo’s most romantic spot would be in the U.S.A. Pavilion?
Of course, love is on the minds of lots of pavilion designers, including Slovenia. Did you know that Slovenia is the only country in the world with “love” in its name? I didn’t either until visiting Expo, where it’s this Eastern European country’s tourism slogan. Slovenia’s pavilion is also hookup ready, at least after the sun sets. It turns into a weekend dance club, where the Slovenian beer flows freely and DJs spin in its front garden, the action spilling into the Decumano.
The DJ at the Dutch pavilion. (Photo: Michael Luongo)
In none of the promotional materials about Expo did I learn that there would be dancing, and the Slovenians don’t have the market cornered. The Polish pavilion has an outdoor dance space, too, but the best known among young Expo aficionados is naturally enough the Dutch pavilion, a major evening hot spot, rivaling the Ice Bar in the Alessandro Rosso Group pavilion.
I didn’t have to wait for late nights though to dance. Naturally enough, the Argentina pavilion offers tango lessons throughout the day. Along with friend and fellow journalist Elena Tanca who was exploring Expo with me, I made a fool of myself with lessons blurted out in a cacophony of English, Italian and Spanish on the pavilion’s dance floor, the focal point of its Guggenheim-like corkscrew ramp entry way leading to its exhibition space. There, a video tells how Italian immigration helped make Argentina the agricultural powerhouse it is today.
Having lived in the country itself, raucous dancing is something I’d expect in Argentina’s pavilion. To my surprise though, Iran also had dancing. At least giant dancing puppets. In one of the most mesmerizing and incongruous spectacles at the Expo, enormous dancing puppets, standing something like 15 feet high, jutted playfully out into the Decumano.
The Iranian puppets at the Iranian pavilion. (Photo: Michael Luongo)
I am not sure if the loud music was to get the attention of German leader Angela Merkel who was visiting the August day I was there at her own country’s pavilion across from Iran’s, but it certainly got mine.
With the nuclear weapons treaty all over the news, it had already been my plan to visit the Iran pavilion. In keeping with Expo’s food theme, Iranian produce was highlighted, in particular the pistachio, one of the country’s main agricultural exports. The pavilion was serenely beautiful, with its interior garden landscaping and videos highlighting the Iranian countryside. The ceiling was covered with faceted mirrors, made to mimic the glittering vaults of the famous mosques of Isfahan, one of Iran’s holiest and most historic cities, according to Mahmoud Hajrezapour who was working in the Iran pavilion. “Americans are more curious than ever to visit,” Mahmoud told me when I asked if U.S. visitors had stopped (the Iran nuclear treaty has been all over the news.
Sip on a mojito at the Cuba exhibit. (Photo: Michael Luongo)
Maybe the Expo should not be about politics, but our normalizing relations with another once inaccessible country, along with my own visit years ago, drew me in to see Cuba’s exhibit. Still a poor country, it did not have its own pavilion, but instead was a part of one of the food themed special groupings, linked with other coffee producers. Of course, coffee was not what people were coming in for. Instead, mojitos flowed freely, with dozens of glasses at a bar at the ready, pre-filled with ice and mint leaves. Here I met Ariel, who worked at the gift shop, piles of straw hats on his counter. I asked if curious Americans were flooding in, and indeed, he told me many came asking questions. I wondered if this worried him, a harbinger of massive changes on the island, but Ariel seemed at ease. “No, we will protect the island,” he said, adding that Cubans remain the owners of the island, and will ensure that Americans cannot change it too much, no matter how many of us come.
But rapid commercial change can come to communist countries, and that was clearly the case for China. Unlike poverty stricken Cuba, China’s pavilion was a demonstration of financial achievement, filled with exhibits and impressive architecture inside and out. The gardens were adorned with sculptures, though also hosting vending trucks selling food and tacky souvenirs. The wood beamed interior soared to cathedral like heights, the waiting line passing through what seemed a steel bamboo forest, each blade lit at the top, revealing a gigantic screen when seen from above, showing dream-like images of Chinese nature.
The China pavilion. (Photo: Michael Luongo)
I have to say I was skeptical at first when I waited to see the Chinese video presentation, titled Harmony, knowing it can be a code word for both censorship and suppression of political dissidence. The animated film instead told the tale of four successful siblings who live across the globe and return home to visit their grandmother on Chinese New Year. Its blend of tradition and modernity, linking the four siblings to a tale of four birds who fly away from their nest was truly adorable, delighting adults and children. Then it came to me. Four children in one Chinese family? What about that infamous one child family policy the country has enforced for decades?
It would be an impossible task to list every pavilion I went to in detail, but there were many others I visited. Israel’s focused on the ecological challenges of sustainable agriculture for a growing population. The Vatican, virtually next door, featured video presentations on long tables, meant to show the commonality of agriculture, something that we all share regardless of our religion.
All of the cool kids hanging out at the ice bar in the Alessandro Rosso Group pavilion. (Photo: Michael Luongo)
A few caveats for your own visit. Even with a journalist pass allowing me to jump ahead of most lines, which can be as long as a three-hour wait on a busy day, I could not visit all the places I wanted to. Make a plan and be strategic, but also be flexible. Going early helps, as the price of entry drops to 5 Euro after 7pm. That’s a great price, but it also means the Expo floods with local families, making the lines disastrous. Some pavilions have outside gardens, and almost all have dining and shopping options, so even if the line is long in the front, see what you can glimpse from the back. Many visitors come thinking they will see everything in one or two days, when in reality five days might make for a more comfortable visit. This is a world’s fair after all.
There is also what I call the Hidden Expo, a special food related art exhibit in the center of Milan, which is also part of Milano Expo 2015. It’s hardly promoted and very few people go to this enormous exhibition inside of the Triennale exhibition hall. Called Art and Foods: Ritual Since 1851, I was told that on the busiest day, a thousand people attended, which pales in comparison to the tens of thousands at the main expo.
(Photo: Andy Wharhol/Milano Expo 2015)
You will never see so many Last Suppers in your life, including one by Andy Warhol. In fact, I never thought about it before, but much of what Warhol became famous for is food related art, including those soup cans and all those mottled brown bananas.
There are also fabulous examples of kitchen and appliance design through the decades, guaranteed to make you look at Tupperware in a new artistic light. Caffeine freaks will also take note of all the espresso machines, perhaps the most ever assembled under a single roof. Not part of Milano Expo, but timed for the event is The World of Leonardo, a special exhibit on the inventions of Leonardo Da Vinci, with reconstructions of his flying machines and explanatory videos, inside of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II.