EXPO 2015, a missed opportunity.

«Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life.»

That is the theme of EXPO 2015, that is, food. Lacking food, surplus food, wasted food, according to the country, the territory, the continent. Visiting the expo, I would expect to be immersed in the food, in its smells, its colors, in its flavors. I would expect to be able to try dishes unknown to me, foods that are grown only in certain countries, very different recipes with respect to those I am used to, but it was not so.

I have visited the EXPO 2015, as many others. I walked through the various pavilions, visited the various exhibitions and shows, not just the ones organized by the most important countries but also those set up by every single Asian or African nation, including the smallest. This is a short report of my experience and some thoughts that I have drawn.

First of all, there are first and second league pavilions. Honestly I expected that, and I was neither surprised nor shocked. Basically there are very poor countries in the world, which can bring into play very few resources in events like these, such as Moldova; others that are so wealthy to be able to set up ten pavilions, such as the UAE. Instead, what surprised me is that, in the end, there was more food in the many pavilions of poor countries than in richer countries’ ones, such as China or the United States.

«But where is
the food?»

In fact, the first question I asked myself after a while I was hanging around the various pavilions was: «But where is the food?». Yes, of course each pavilion had its own restaurant and its bar where more or less local dishes were served — maybe even a little too much “westernized”, at times — but other than that, most of the food was digital!

Yes, you read that right: digital. 90% of the food at the EXPO 2015 was in fact artificial, false, or virtual. I will not even argue that much on the huge fruit, cheese, or sausages stalls, at the heart of the Decumanus, the main street of the EXPO, were all made of plastic. Okay, let us pretend that this is just scenery — I think it is gaudy and very kitsch anyway, but let us consider them simply scenery — and let us focus on the various pavilions.

Displays. Everywhere. Small, large, wide-screen, even circular ones, but displays. And the shown movies were not particularly exciting at all. Most videos were of average quality, both as regards contents and resolution. Many photos, many videos, little food. A completely dematerialized perspective of issues about food in the world.

Okay, but after all it is also fair to explain, inform, create culture, isn’t it? Well, let us talk about. It is important to explain and inform as well, but before we talk about something, perhaps we should know it. Food is culture: it is perhaps one of the most important channels through which we understand the culture of a people. When we go to another country, it is one of the first aspects which we come in contact with. We are what we eat. Food is an integral part of the cultural identity of a people, it represents the territory and how that land is feeding the people who live there. But the food is real. Food can be tried, felt, tasted, smelled, touched.

«Food is eaten
in the street.»

Anyone who has a little experience of travel, especially of the real ones, made in the midst of people, away from the traditional tourist routes, knows that in most of the world, and I do not speak only of the countries of the Third World, the food is eaten on the streets. Pancakes, kebabs, cakes, fruits, in all possible ways and sauces. The streets taste of food, the very air smells of food. And not only smells or tastes, but sounds, words, noise of crockery and bubbling pots, vapors and fumes. This is food in the world.

I ate just about anything in my travels and a good part of what I ate was in the streets. A flat bread cooked on a stone in a Bedouin village, served with dark tea. Strips of meat and fish fillets simmered in a vegetable broth in the streets of Bangkok. Giant crabs on the quays of San Francisco. Fish skewers in the streets of Greek villages, clinging to the hills, overlooking the sea. Pieces of marinated chicken with vegetables and rice in the populated neighborhoods of Hong Kong. All my memories of journeys are related to food, and every food to a street, a square, a stall. But in this hi-tech exhibit I felt projected into a sanitized world, where colors have no taste, images no smell.

The whole design of this event is a huge cultural misunderstanding. You enter a pavilion and, at most, you can eat a traditional cookery course at a cost ranging from 8 to 15 euro, more or less. Not so much, but how many courses you may eat in a day? Two, three, five? Let us assume that you spend 50 euro and you eat five different courses. It is not a matter of money, but stomach. You cannot eat more than that, if every time they claim to give you a full meal. What about the others? The other recipes, the other flavors? Never mind. No, not really never mind! That is not good. This way is completely wrong.

Do you want to know which should have been “my expo”? Imagine a big global village, made of narrow streets, sounds and cries; a huge bazaar full of shops, stalls, faces of all shapes and colors as possible, clothes of every fabric and imaginable patterns. You walk in the midst of this ferment of words you do not understand, belonging to unknown languages, and in the midst of familiar sounds of pots and pans. You walk and catch a glimpse here, a piece of cake there, a fritter just drained from the pan somewhere else. And then slices of fruit, spicy jerkies, a bowl of bean or lentil soup. You spend one euro in a stall, a few tens of cents in the next ones; small sums for fragments of flavors and smells that take you to distant lands and make you feel for a moment a piece of alien culture. And you begin to understand.

«There is enough food,
for everybody.»

You begin to understand that in the world there is a lot more food than we may think, but that it is badly distributed, like any other resource on the planet, by the way. That coffee or cocoa for which we pay through the nose here, has been paid almost nothing to whom cultivated the plant. And so for bananas, mangoes, or pineapples. That such a wealth has stopped halfway and that if it would arrive to the source of that food, everyone would be a little richer because few would be a little poorer. And that the world could be better, more nourished, healthier, if only we had more care of it and give everyone the chance to live on their own means.

And so you understand also that a great opportunity has been lost. Not only by the organizers of the EXPO, but by every government that took part to it, from the richer ones, with their luxury multimedia pavilions, to the poorer ones, which look like small village bar, with their fans at ceiling and the gas stove on which a pot is bubbling. Because not only the former have forgotten that in a show about food the protagonist is the food, but the latter, who have made the effort to get there, could have brought much more than what they brought, because their countries are rich: rich in fauna, flora, colors, and flavors. The fact that only few see the fruits of that wealth is another thing, but there is no richest land than Africa, no more varied territory than Asia, no more alive ground than in South America.

«Where there is food
there is peace.»

I returned home with the impression of having been cheated of something. I do not care that I made a trip and spent money for a very poor show, rich in appearance but lacking in content. If I wanted to look at some nice video, I could sit in front of the TV and watch a documentary by the National Geographic channel, or simply turn on the computer. The web is plenty of cultural videos, many of them much better made than any I have seen at the EXPO. If I wanted to see a son et lumière performance, there are many events like that in the calendar, just in Italy. And if I wanted to eat ethnic food, I would simply go to one of the many restaurants in the Italian capital. I saw more food in a single country fair than in the pavilions of EXPO 2015 all together. No, what I lost is neither time nor money, but a dream: to see people really learn to know each other through food, overcoming fears and prejudices and understanding how it would be so nice if we would stop to hurt ourselves with wars, exploitation, discrimination, to learn to live in peace together, sitting around a common table taking with hands the food from the same big pot that has always fed us and that could feed us much longer if we would had more care of it: our planet.

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Comments (1) to «EXPO 2015, a missed opportunity.»

  1. Andrea says:

    bell’articolo…non ci sono ancora stato, domani ci andrò per la prima volta ma quello che mi hai disegnato tu, una grossa sagra paesana internazionale, sarebbe stato bellissimo. Forse per pochi visitatori però, girare nelle viette piene di bancarelle in qualche migliagio di persone penso sia uno dei peggiori incubi che ci si possa augurare, pensando anche al caldo di questa estate. Non so, domani proverò a confrontare la tua idea di expo con quello che vedrò e vediamo…

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