As Dubai Counts Down to Expo 2020, Nirmal Khanna goes to Milan to attend Expo 2015 that is being heralded by some as a sign that Italy is finally back on its feet. The global fair that opened with the theme ‘Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life’ is expected to draw 20 million people to Italy’s fashion capital during the six months.
Visiting a World Expo requires much planning with so much to see and experience, and time is usually short
The current Milan Expo, which began on May 1, hosted with traditional Italian warmth and flair, has become a magnet for tourists worldwide especially from the UAE as Dubai readies to host the next one in 2020.
My friend Elinor, who has wanderlust to match mine, was equally keen. The problem was that we live in different continents. Our plans fell neatly into place. The Expo was to be in Milan which is on the crossroads in Europe so midway for both of us. She lives in the US and I am based in Dubai. Months before the giant Expo opened in Milan our planning went into fast forward.
Our time table was set for mid May, giving the organizers enough time to deal with teething troubles and before the hordes of tourists, taking advantage of the summer vacation,descended onto Milan. We were scheduled to spend about a week in the historic city. 2-3 days for the Expo and another few days to see the magnificent Duomo, the church Santa Maria delle Grazie and the famous painting, ‘Last Supper’, another exhibition highlighting the genius that was Leonardo de Vinci (painter, sculptor, mechanical engineer and more) plus a day or more to check out the must haves of the fashion capital of Italy and feast on the famous street food especially ice-cream.
Months ahead, we bought the tickets for the Expo and exhibitions and maps studied as we thought that reaching the Expo grounds might prove a challenge Getting to the Expo site was a breeze and the planners have done an excellent job. Buses connect with clearly marked trains and as one exits at the final destination, one is facing the main entrance of the Expo. Yet, despite getting their relatively early: 10:30, the myriad lines bore witness to an enthusiastic crowd.
We walked into a canopied tunnel which seemed to stretch forever. It has pavilions on both sides and play areas stretching way beyond. There were children everywhere and a holiday atmosphere prevailed. The 20 somethings were busy taking selfies, the girls preening while the young lads strutted around in groups as loud peppy music set the mood. Parents were busy trying to keep track of their kids and seniors, exhausted by the walking, were napping on benches. Of course, Italian ice-cream was available every 20 mts or so. There were kiosks, vans, stalls and restaurants doing brisk business in Italy’s favourite food: ice-cream
Our focus was the UAE pavilion as Dubai the next venue for the Expo in 2020. Greeting the visitors was a group of young Emiratis in national dress that became a magnet for passersby wanting to be photographed with them. A young lad draped his arm around an Emirati hostess who quietly moved away saying ‘don’t touch!’ The message was loud and clear and the boy hastily moved away!
The queue at the UAE pavilion was daunting as it snaked right around the ‘walls’ winding back to the starting point, so we postponed the visit resolving to arrive early the following day. The next pavilion was Kazakhstan, a country which is drawing a great deal of interest as it is hosting an energy exhibition in 2017. Here again, there was a queue but the organizers had found a way to keep them entertained by having folk dancers, musicians, and singers performing, tempting passersby to come in to check out the country’s attractions.
Kazakhstan, for most of us, is a comparatively unknown country hence it was an eye opener seeing the range of agricultural produce on display. Fascinating were the apples (some 1kg each) and quality of saffron apart from an extensive range of fruit, vegetables and spices. All display stands were interactive and bilingual: Italian and English.
Puzzled by a dangling model of a drone, we asked about it. A Kazak hostess explained that their country gets swarms of locust that destroy the crops. The drones monitor the agricultural areas and when a swarm is detected, spores are sprayed to control them. She mentioned that they are the first in using this method to control the swarms.
China’s pavilion matches the country’s size: it is huge. With posters and bill boards showing different provinces leading the way in for visitors, somehow the displays did not live up to one’s expectation. A cute line-up of clay figures of farmers making Peking duck right from the choosing of the duck, slaughter, cooking, serving and family dining proved quite an attraction.
A note of sadness and sympathy was directed to the pavilion of Nepal, still getting finishing touches a fortnight after the Expo’s opening. The Nepalese and Italian flags at the entrance were at half mast, somber music set the mood and a large board carried heart wrenching pictures of the devastation caused by the recent earthquakes. Most passersby stopped to drop a contribution into the box for donations. A walk through some of the other pavilions highlighted some interesting details. The American pavilion showcased a new culinary trend of the food trucks. Six custom made trucks serve regional cuisine keeping within the parameters of ‘wholesomeness, sustainability and health’. From the iconic hamburger to classic American desserts, it was a feast.
The UK pavilion seemed to have focused more on design. An enormous steel and aluminum ‘hive’ with a platform within was the focal point. Azerbaijan highlighted the country’s organic healthy products while Vietnam’s ’Water and Lotus Pavilion’ dwelt on the problems of water pollution, over fishing and waste. In the ponds at the entrance are cute statues of children playing in the water, tempting visiting kids to do the same.
Indonesia gave us a glimpse of their handicrafts and culture, while the Japanese , always dignified and elegant had the slogan ‘Harmonious diversity’ which explained their using a vast range of vegetables, meat and fish. Also, emphasized was the necessity of gratitude before eating, sharing, not being wasteful and appreciating the journey of food from production to the table.
The Italian pavilion is an architectural marvel; a showpiece on its own. After the Expo is over, it will remain as a centre for technological innovation for the city of Milan.
However, Italy as host country had much more to showcase: each region had a restaurant with specialties for foodies. Judging by the popularity of the area, it was a question of finding a place to sit! All the eating areas were full of happy families, with the spillover sitting in the garden or on terraces enjoying the springtime sunshine.
The UAE Pavilion
The following day, we arrived even earlier at the Expo grounds. Others had the same idea and we still had to queue for about 30 minutes. We used the time in chatting with the young Emirati hosts/guides who, rightfully so, are proud of their heritage, retaining the values yet in tune with the times. Young Ayesha was going back to finish her Masters degree in Virginia, USA and another young lady had taken time off from her bank job in Dubai to volunteer for this opportunity.
It also gave us time to admire the UAE pavilion which is just stunning and quite unique. 12metre wavy walls finished with a gritty surface to resemble sand dunes towered above providing shade for visitors. Between the walls is a winding path which reminded us of the Bastakiya lanes and charming courtyards of Dubai. Our queue inched around the sinuous walls and we used the time checking out the desert shrubs which are planted at intervals.
Finally, we reached the entrance: the first row of boxes highlighted the problems (shortage of water etc) and the second section presented similar black boxes giving us the solutions. The use of holograms made the display dramatic. Simple, different and easy to understand. The emphasis was in sharing the solutions with the world.
The path led up to an auditorium where we watched ‘Family Tree’: a charming 8 minute movie which centred on Grandma living with her family in a khaimah (tent) somewhere in the desert and facing the problems of a harsh environment.
Fast forward: the UAE is booming, tall towers emerge from the sand and stand tall against the skyline. Fascinating was the spectacle of a full grown date palm being transported by helicopter for replanting. Grandma and family are content.
The UAE pavilion gives a strong message of sustainability, mobility and opportunity (sub themes of the Expo). It highlights the importance of recycling: the walls will be taken back to the UAE and used in the Masdar City, Abu Dhabi.
The volunteers, all in the 20-35 age brackets had etiquette and cultural training central to the history of the UAE and pertinent to the Expo 2020.The pavilion hosts about 3000 visitors a day was the information given to us by one of the volunteers but it seemed to be a lot more than that.
All in all, the Milan Expo is just terrific: there is a holiday mood pervading, emphasis is on family and food, fascinating exhibits making it a terrific family holiday destination. With the benefit of hind sight, we should have kept four days for the Expo and another 2-3 days for sightseeing in Mila