Exactly one hundred years after the Panama-Pacific International Exposition reshaped my home town of San Francisco, I stood at the gates of the Expo Milano 2015. I'd always wanted to go to a World's Fair. That's where the ice cream cone made its debut (St. Louis, 1904). And the Ford Mustang (New York, 1964), baker's chocolate (1867, Paris), the telephone (Philadelphia, 1876), and color television (New York, 1939).
World's Fairs, like Burning Man, leave behind extraordinary works of public art, such as Seattle's Space Needle (1962), or San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts (1915). Which one, or ten, of the futuristic buildings constructed outside of Milan will be left standing for the next century? Too soon to tell.
This fair has a serious mission. From now through October 2015, 140 countries show the best of their technology to answer to a vital need: being able to guarantee healthy, safe and sufficient food for everyone, while respecting our planet and Her equilibrium.
The Expo website says it beautifully: "On the one hand, there are still the hungry (approximately 870 million people) and, on the other, there are those who die from ailments linked to poor nutrition or too much food (approximately 2.8 million deaths). In addition, about 1.3 billion tons of foods are wasted every year. For these reasons, we need to make conscious political choices, develop sustainable lifestyles, and use the best technology to create a balance between the availability and the consumption of resources."
To get this message out, Milan created a park to host more than 20 million visitors in six months.
My day at the Fair with my husband and daughter left me with this impression: Colossal. The Map is deceptive; it makes you think you can cover everything in a day. No way. Not only is it a long, long walk, with buildings on either side (and behind each other) packed with things to see. This wonderful drawing will give you an idea of who is participating, and here are some jaw-dropping photos of what their buildings look like. Not only are there events everywhere, and concerts in the evening. No, there's something even more colossal, even more wonderful and at the same time, rather terrifying. Every single country has provided restaurants offering its own cultural dishes. (Including, apparently, a country called McDonald's, which we did not visit).
Starting at the back end (accessible by tram, no crowds), we sampled the best Indonesian chicken satay ever, followed by Turkish coffee and Pomegranate juice. Wandering, we gazed at a massive face at the Slovenia Pavilion, next to its Andy Warhol Café, admired the mirrored overhang of the Russian Pavilion, and dipped into the Sultanate of Oman to see how fishermen and bees contribute to the economy.
The Expo had broken the Guinness Record for the World's Longest Pizza that day; a few thousand patrons wandered by with their wafer-thin cheese square. I was not jealous for our family had stumbled across the most amazing Brie-and-Speck pizza in a cafe that featured a Table of Elements for all pizza ingredients.
I was sorry to have missed the food at the Azerbaijan Pavilion. But this could not be a walk of regrets. Rather, it whetted my appetite for more world travel. Germany showed off a brilliant public wooden bench that had lounge sections and an overhang shaded by plants. We need those here. Ecuador's building was like tropical plumage. Japanese dancers danced, Iranian women drummed, and Venezuela showed virtual sea creatures over our heads.
We had considered skipping the U.S.A. Pavilion, being Americans with 139 other countries to learn from. But it was actually too cool-looking to skip. American Food 2.0 featured massive vertical farms with cabbages and leeks and corn overhead, swinging to capture the sun. Inside we watched some intriguing videos that showed America as a country of innovative immigrants, deeply concerned about regional barbecue, fruit & kale shakes, and taco trucks, a multitude of different beings brought together by the inherent generosity of our bizarre festival of Thanksgiving. You go, U.S.A. Did I mention that Michelle Obama had visited just the day before?
One of our companions felt overtired, hot, and snappish, but perked up instantly in the refrigerated rooms of the Italy Pavilion's Expo de Vino. Here, more than 1,300 bottles of wine rested behind glass, separated by Italian region. Swipe your card, get an Automat pour. I was glad for the generous hunk of Parmesan they gave us, with a long, thin breadstick. As we continued, I also noticed open gyms with treadmills and bouncy balls every quarter mile or so, and good large restrooms with ice-cold water in the taps.
Learn about the Expo here-- and absorb whatever strikes your fancy. We don't know which new technology or behavior is debuting at this World's Fair, but it's safe to say it will become part of our planetary food consciousness.
I took a Sustainable Vegetable Gardening class at the community center. Taught by Master Gardeners, the class met weekly for two hours. I arrived with a dismal record for keeping vegetables and plants healthy. The land in our back yard is a tightly compacted clay that has already broken a number of my husband’s picks, rakes, and shovels.
My goals: Learn about soil; feed my own compost and amend my soil; grow one thing (probably a tomato plant); and learn what plants attract bees, butterflies, and ‘beneficial insects.’
Results: I learned that I am not THAT into gardening, and decided not to build veggie beds this year. Yet I gained an almost rapturous appreciation of soil. Did you know that 2/3 of a plant’s biomass lives underground? That soil is the living edge where earth and sky meet? That the processes which occur in the top few centimeters of the earth’s surface are the basis for ALL life on dry land?
2015 has been declared an International Year of Soils. Awareness of soil is profoundly important to how we understand food security, water availability, climate change, and the alleviation of poverty.
One teaspoon of composted soil (which is fluffy and smells good) contains more than 40,000 different species of yeasts, algae, and molds; seven miles of fungus filaments; 10 trillion bacteria, 100 billion fungi, 10 billion protozoa, five billion nematodes and larger critters. Fairly bursting with life.
Influenced by the classes, I began feeding my lackluster compost pile with coffee grounds and all our fruit and veg trimmings, and watering it regularly. It suddenly began to act like compost! Then I put a mound of this black gold on the roots of an anemic azalea and watered it with our shower-catching bucket. Now that azalea is putting out the biggest blossoms I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t that hard.
The class offered some unexpected benefits: Tips and pamphlets about drought tolerance, worm composting, handling all kinds of garden pests. A bag of mixed seeds for a wildflower garden that will attract beneficial insects! And two baby milkweed seedlings, the preferred food of the Monarch butterfly.
Along the way I picked up (and planted) a baby fig tree, a healthy tomato plant, golden and silver thyme, and three fuchsia plants. So far they are all still living, the thyme even thriving. This was a useful action.
Here are some thoughts about weddings, writing, and the world. Enjoy.