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Stefano Salimbeni at the Milan EXPO 2015
Stefano Salimbeni at the Milan EXPO 2015

Milan EXPO 2015: Visit it, Enjoy it, and Be Proud

A fresh, first person, passionate recount of our collaborator Stefano Salimbeni’s visit to the Milan International Exposition.

A joy for the eyes, more than for the palate, a challenge for the legs – and the wallet – more than for the intellect and anyway at the end of the day (and in this case is usually a long one) a breath of fresh air for our (too often and for too long repressed and subdued) pride of being Italian.

Obviously after a six-hours-only visit, at an event that would require at least the same amount of days, the first impressions by ‘yours truly’, should be taken with a grain of salt (and maybe a glass of iced water, given the Saharan temperatures registered in Lombardy). Expo 2015 might be , and probably is something totally different with way much more to it: this is simply the most concise, immediate and spontaneous answer to all those who, upon my return from Milan legitimately asked me: “So, how is it?”

And to know, or even just to have a taste of how EXPO – and just about anything else in life – really is, one needs to go there, in person. Better, if by train, as I have, on a “Freccia” (arrow) one of Italy’s new super fast trains, in order to start tasting, already during the trip, the often evoked ‘Italian Excellence’ – unfortunately more appreciated abroad than at home – which, regardless of how much pessimists and protesters might yap, still, indeed, exists.

Travelling at up to 200 miles per hour speeds through the brand new Bologna and Reggio Emilia stations devoted exclusively to high-speed trains and getting off at the just as futuristic Rho-Fiera terminal, built for the occasion right outside the gates of the World’s fair, is a psychological preparation to the vortex of architectural and technological suggestions one gets surrounded (and a bit overwhelmed) by, as soon as these gates are crossed.

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The ‘Decuman’, to begin with, the enormous corridor (in fact the main thoroughfare of what is, by all means, a small town) overlooking each and everyone of the 140 Pavillion representing different nations, does not leave any doubt on the size, or the level, of the entire operation: a mile-long walkway, with a slightly porous, pedestrian-friendly, surface, as wide as a couple of highways and covered by huge panels placed in such a way as to let air through and keep water out – in other words a well aerated shelter from possible precipitations, perfect, in the torrid Milan summer.

At first glance the place appears almost deserted; then, after a more attentive look, one realizes to be the victim of an optical effect caused by the size of the structures, and that on a scorching midsummer Wednesday afternoon, the quantity of people wandering about and around the Pavillion/artworks that in many cases seem borrowed from an architect’s dream (or an engineer’s nightmare for that matter) could easily correspond to the crowd outside a stadium before a Champions’ League soccer game or of a race track after a Formula One grand prix. Estimates speak of about 120-130,000 visitors daily over the summer, so, considering weekend peaks, it sounds about right.

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The last doubts on the number of visitors are definitely dissipated after sundown, when all (or almost all visitors spread over the 280 acres of the fairgrounds) gather, as a gigantic native American tribe around the totem, to enjoy the evening show offered by the ‘Tree of Life’, the event’s most representative monument and the only one – it seems – bound to remain standing for posterity in the hope of becoming a city landmark, exactly like the Eiffel tower in Paris or the Atomium in Brussels, also relics of World fairs past – held respectively in 1889 and 1958.

The show, an exhilarating blend of music, lights, dancing fountains and fireworks, lasts a good half hour, is nothing short – cheesiness aside – of those put up by the best Las Vegas Casinos, and is, alone, definitely worth the 32 euros of the entrance ticket. However, once there, one has to pay a visit to the adjacent Italian pavilion – a sort of ‘impossible figure’ of a building made entirely (they say) of sustainable materials. Through enormous semi-empty halls with 3D mega screens and mirror effects, the Italian complex aims at showcasing the country’s productive and technological potential in the agri-food sector, which after all (despite the numerous occasion the fair offers to forget it) is EXPO’s main theme.

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Another memento of the eno-gastronomic nature of the event is the impressive space – Italian as well – dedicated to wine tasting, filled with a whooping 1,300 bottles of DOC and DOCG wines, all beautifully displayed, behind glass cases and each connected to automatic dispensers gauged on little-more-than-symbolic quantities, all contained by an aseptic, futuristic, more Star Trek’s spaceship than farmer’s cellar, environment. Three sips (literally) 10 euros: thanks, but I think I’ll pass!

In all truth, as impressive as it might be (and let me repeat myself, it is!) ‘Vino – A taste of Italy), one of the pavilions most talked about in the press, well summarizes, at least according to ‘yours truly’ and with all the limits imposed by the briefness of my ‘pilgrimage’, the real downside of EXPO 2015: the clear sensation – in fact found in other exhibit halls (the American one I visited out of citizen’s duty, and the French one for evident superiority when it comes to food) of being surrounded by many beautiful boxes with little or nothing inside. Don’t get me wrong, as far as food there is a lot – even too much – of it, form all over the world; yet it is all for sale, and what’s worse, at prices that are anything but “sustainable”.

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In fact “sustainability”, a flaunted, omnipresent and apparently super-fashionable word nowadays, is mentioned everywhere; and yet farmers from developing countries are particularly hard to find at EXPO, while there is an abundance – rightly so given the money they paid for it – of symbols and logos from the official sponsors, among which are a few powerhouses of the food industry (as in, multinational, corporate, manufacturing industry) such as McDonald’s and Nestle – not exactly the first names that come to mind when one thinks of champions of the fight against waste and the fostering of local, ‘zero-miles’, consumption.

Thus, somebody like me, used to assume the worst about people (committing a sin but often getting it right, as 7 times Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti used to say), amidst water cascades that write words in mid air and gigantic (plastic) replicas of typical, picturesque famer markets, cannot help thinking that the zeroes dear to the heart of the real protagonists here, are the ones they see in the tax right-offs obtained for financing the event rather than those in front of the miles between the producer and the consumer. You know, just some naughty journalistic thoughts formulated while sipping a delicious coffee, sold at a popular 2.5 euros price, but served, nevertheless in a biodegradable cup and stirred with a wooden teaspoon.

Oh well, better than nothing, many say, and in this case I happen to agree. In fact I dare to add: you have to start somewhere, and EXPO, despite all the hypocrisies that inevitably surround any multi-billion dollar operation, is a good starting point; first of all, to begin speaking of sustainability (the fact that the word is so fashionable is, in fact, a good sign), of waste reduction, of the potential technology and globalization have not only in terms of profits but also and most of all of social justice – without letting the sacrosanct attention for the latter turn into a myopic, reactionary and ultimately self destructive protest against everything else under the sun.

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But EXPO must be, and despite the six-hour ‘flash’ visit I am now convinced it is, a great opportunity to start, actually to restart, believing in ourselves, both as individuals and as a nation. It is beautiful, spacious, clean, well organized , and most of all – despite the last minute completion and the usual (not only in Italy) bribery along the way – it works! And it was us who made it happen; because after all, although lately we seem to have forgotten about it, we are, indeed, good at doing things well. And we are showing it, every day, until EXPO will close, after having been visited, the organizers – and we – hope, by at least 20 million people.

And I hope you, dear readers, will be, if you haven’t been already, among those visitors. Not only for the beauty, the size, the international atmosphere, and fact that is a once in a lifetime chance (at least for those my age and up) to see an International exposition held in Italy; but also and most of all to realize and witnesses, in first person, that there is no reason why the example set in Milan’s fairgrounds should not be followed, once again, everywhere in the country. And even if EXPO turns out to be only a beautiful box, … oh well it is still a reminder that so many people around the world cannot even make those.

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About Stefano Salimbeni

Stefano is a Boston-based freelance reporter, correspondent and producer for Italy’s national TV network RAI. Over the past 15 years he has produced more than 800 “Italian-angled” news stories and features from New England and from around the United States for RAI’s international channel, RAI Italia, broadcast to over 60 million viewers of Italian origins or of Italian descent living outside of Italy. He also assisted, and occasionally still does, RAI’s main correspondents in producing news stories and special reports during major news events. For the past three years, Stefano has also been the US correspondent for Famiglia Cristiana, one of Italy’s most widely circulated national magazines. He came to Boston in 1996 to earn a master’s degree and fulfill a lifelong dream of being a journalist. Stefano’s work can be viewed on his personal website, www.stefanosalimbeni.com.