A Lineup of Flavours at Expo Milano 2015


I absolutely love food. Of all types, flavours, and origins. But I detest (with an unfathomable level of displeasure) lineups and crowds. So the decision of whether or not to attend Expo Milano 2015 during a recent trip to Milan could have gone either way. I was curious about the gargantuan exhibit with more than 140 participating countries, welcoming an expected 20 million visitors over 6 months. I was definitely interested in the theme, “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life” which explores global food production and supply, and sounded like it would deliver some delicious international tastings from countries near and far. But I had also heard, from several people who had visited, that the crowds and queues were out of control. Lineups to enter the pavilions were regularly topping 2-3 hours. What was a girl to do? In the end, my stomach won out (as it often does), and I headed headfirst into the mob during the last hurrah of this international event.

When I arrived in Italy earlier this fall I had no idea that Expo was on. Actually, full disclosure, I had never really heard of Expo except as a hazy reference to the Montreal event that took place sometime in the late 60’s (1967 to be precise, thank you Wikipedia). But apparently Expo is a bigger deal than I thought because as soon as people heard I was going to Milan, their first question was always, “are you going to see Expo?” Clearly I needed to find out what all the fuss was about.

Surprisingly, the internet was not much help. Google “Expo” and the 2015 event pops up, but so does a hazy Wikipedia entry on about a dozen things “Expo” could mean. The one titled “World’s Fair” seemed to be the closest, so I followed that breadcrumb and landed on this entry, which makes things about as clear as mud. I’ll save you the trouble and sum up the pertinent facts:

  • The large official Expo’s now take place about every five years (with smaller ones sometimes occurring in between).
  • Participants generally build their own pavilions.
  • The themes encompass any facet of the universal human experience.
  • The Eiffel Tower was originally built for Expo in 1889.
  • The next universal Expo will be held in 2020 in Dubai.

But back to Milan.

Expo Milano 2015 had several things going for it. It was a beautiful day, the sun was shining, the weather was warm, and I was ready to explore. The event was well organized, with a massive number of helpful volunteers, great wayfinding signage, adequate bathrooms (ladies, ya hear me?), and an easy-to-follow layout. And the pavilions – Expo’s entire raison d’être – were incredible… from what I saw, which was mostly the outside of them, because the lineups were NUTS!

When I first arrived I headed straight for Pavilion Zero, the starting point of Expo, providing an overall introduction to the show. I lined up in an orderly fashion (like a good Canadian) and waited, and waited, and waited some more. 30 minutes later I hadn’t moved. Not one inch. This was not a good start. I decided to abandon ship. I figured it was the beginning of the day so everyone was bottlenecked near the entrance – I’d head inside, straight to the pavilions, where surely there would be less of a crowd.

One of the first pavilions I came across was the Czech Republic and there was no line out front. Ha! I’d outsmarted the crowds. But as it turned out, they’d outsmarted me because the pavilion wasn’t that impressive. With the exception of a large bird sculpture in the fountain outside, it was actually a bit disappointing, so perhaps I wasn’t as smart as I thought I was. Onward I went.

The Angola pavilion came soon after and a friend had told me it was actually quite good. There was a line, but I thought, what the hell, let’s give it a shot. I waited an hour to get inside. The interior was cool – there were some great display ideas (including wooden palettes that held flat-screen TVs and colourful milk crates creating a wall), but the 30 minutes I spent looking around wasn’t exactly a great return on the time I’d invested in line.

I decided I’d need to get smarter about exploring. I took a look at the exhibition map and shortlisted countries at the top of my list – Thailand, Argentina, Indonesia, Chile, and Nepal made the cut, as did Italy (obviously), and the chocolate district, because chocolate! Then I set out on an international adventure.

I was starting to get hangry, so I moved food to the top of my agenda and set about deciding where to eat. Thailand was pretty close, and I was craving some pad gra prao, so I headed over with dreams of spicy basil spurring me on. The lineup for the Thai pavilion was 2 hours long. But I didn’t need the pavilion, just the restaurant, so I cut around and – SMACK! Lineup out the door. There was a small chance I would wait it out, if, and only if the food looked good, so I did some recon.

It pains me to report that the food on offer at the Thai pavilion appeared to be a series of microwavable dishes with a choice of green chicken curry or pad thai. What. The. Fack. Thailand, I ask you, is this the impression you really want to give to the rest of the world, that this is the food of the golden nation? Where is your spicy som tam? Your balance of sweet and salty flavours? This was BALLS and I refused to refuel with packaged junk, especially at an international exhibition on food – a girl’s got to have standards.

Let me save us some time here and sum up the rest of the day in three easy steps:
Step 1: Find pavilion.
Step 2: Discover a lineup in excess of 1-2 hours+.
Step 3: Abandon ship.

A similar story repeated itself at the next kazillion pavilions. Lineups in excess of 2 hours, and surprisingly, not a ton of great food. Overall, I think my favourite part of Expo Milano 2015 was the awesome creativity and design of the pavilions themselves. That, and an exploration of the cacao and chocolate area that uncovered chocolate covered almonds, plus a Pernigotti pavilion with extra-dark chocolate gelato. I suppose those can be considered a win.

After eight hours of walking and people-watching, I cut bait and headed back into the city for dinner, no reservations or lineups required.

Expo Milano 2015 wraps up October 31st (better line up now).
Lead image sourced here.

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