Expo London 1851

The history of the World’s Fair or the World Exposition (or usually just the Expo for short) began more than a century and a half ago in England. The first World Expo was held in London in 1851, the city then at the height of the Industrial Revolution. Promoted by Prince Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria, and other representatives of the Royal Society of Arts, the “Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations” (as it was then known) was a huge celebration of modern industrial techniques. It was housed in the purpose built Crystal Palace, designed by Joseph Paxton, it in itself a symbol of modernity and industrialization. Four years later, the France of Napoleon III organized the second World Exhibition in Paris, with the intention to surpass the huge success in London. A pavilion was created entirely dedicated to the Fine Arts, to exhibit the works of the most renowned contemporary artists of the time, such as Delacroix, Ingres, Corot and Millet.


Père Tanguy by Vincent van Gogh

Successive Universal Exhibitions followed one after another over the years around the globe. Among the most famous is that of Paris in 1889 which witnessed the construction of the Eiffel Tower and contributed to the spread of “Japonisme” (passion for Japanese art from many Western artists such as Picasso, Cezanne, Debussy and Puccini). Italy, for its part, has hosted three World Exhibitions: Milan in 1906, Turin in 1911 and, now, Milan Expo 2015.

But what defines an Expo as such? According to the Bureau International des Expositions, there are two categories of Expo. There is the Universal Expo, also known the Worldwide Expo, held every five years and lasting up to six months. It has an overall theme, but the size of the pavilions built are not precisely defined. Then there is the International Exhibition that may take place in the interval between two Universal Expos. These have a duration of three months and a maximum area of ​​25 hectares. However, whether Universal or International, Expos remain a prime opportunity for cities to strengthen their image or re-brand. This opportunity did not escape the attention of the former mayor of Milan, Letizia Moratti, who saw the potential of an Expo as a catalyst for financial investments in urban planning and architecture. Moratti was able to convince the mayor of Shanghai, the host city of the previous World Expo, to support the candidacy of Milan. In a showdown with fellow candidate, the city of Izmir in Turkey, Milan won the duel with 86 votes, obtained mainly from African countries and South Americans under the promise that they could participate.


Expo Milano 2015


Despite busy schedules all around, the entire Wakapedia team (excluding BJ who is busy trying to become a comedian in Japan) managed to squeeze in a visit together to the Milan Expo. And their thoughts: it has the feeling of an overseas holiday combined with a global craft fair, crammed with opportunities to sample delicious food from around the world. Your starter would be chips covered in Hollandaise sauce, followed by shrimp wrapped in grapes from the Angolan Pavilion, Kobe beef from the Japan Pavilion– and how about a crocodile and zebra burger from the Zimbabwe Pavilion. But truth be told… we are not sure how much we learnt from our day out at the Expo… it was more like a fun family-outing; a slightly different and exotic way to spend your Sunday. Although with plenty of opportunity to see different cultures, of course.

Wakapedia’s talisman, SaraWaka actually worked in the Japan Pavilion – which was awarded the Gold Prize for Pavilion Design Excellence, by the way –  so let’s dig slightly deeper and find out some of the things you would only have learnt if you actually worked at the Expo!

It’s been just over a month since the Expo closed its doors. And while not everyone, there have been some cases of former-Expo employees being struck with severe Post-Expo Depression, or as it is more commonly know, PED. Throughout the exhibition, I have nothing but wonderful memories (okay, there was some trouble from time to time), and even now thinking of those times brings a smile to my face. Imagine this: a strange and wonderful land populated from people from around the world, all bringing their own customs and cultures. And then, over 6 short months, through cooperation and trial-and-error, they come together to achieve a singular goal. One fellow employee of the Expo was Laura Vignati, a friend from SaraWaka and Federica’s university. She described it is a 600-person plus family network with people of similar age from around the globe. SaraWaka felt exactly the same.


Expo Milan 2015

Working in the Japan Pavilion was peppered with episodes that would warm your heart. Like when a young Indian lady was trying to eat with – and struggling with – chopsticks for the first time. Embarrassed, she gave up and tried to eat with her hands, only to be encouraged by a reminder from the Japanese staff that sushi was originally intended to be eaten by hand. Or the love stories born at the Expo between people of different nationalities – like with the Italian playboy that tried to impress a Lithuanian lovely by inviting her for a drink on the terrace of the Russia Pavilion – nothing kicks off a romantic moment like having to search for your country’s respective capital cities on Google Maps. Or the bewildered faces in an important meeting when some Muslim employees suddenly stood up and began to pray. Every day was a learning experience.


Japan Pavilion

And Italian people are not made to be waiting in queues. Give them a 30 min wait and you’ll be faced with hysterical complaints. Into this, throw in the staff of the Japan Pavilion, so popular it sometimes faced queues of up to 10 hours! At first, the world famous perfect Japanese Customer Service was front-and-centre, but, after a while, the staff became frustrated with the customers becoming frustrated and began to give back as good as they got – in true Italian fashion. Japanese staff members with Italian manners; the Expo’s goal of internationalization was taking place right in front of SaraWaka’s eyes! The fact that, on the opposite side of the spectrum to the Italy Pavilion’s ambassadors being the top-ranking chef Gualtiero Marchesi or the fashion designer Giorgio Armani, the ambassador to the Japan Pavilion was Kitty-chan was also widely noted.

Some of the volunteers at the Expo were convicted criminals, with one such volunteer telling the young people there that “money and pride is of no importance in your life; freedom is the path to happiness”.

Every day contained a surprise and despite the differences in culture, SaraWaka came to feel that when it comes down to it, people are all the same. Touched by the magic of the Expo, she even sometimes came to view the Expo’s symbolic “Tree of Life” (widely ridiculed for being a little tacky) as even more impressive than the Eiffel Tower, and once found herself commenting that the Slovakian coffee was as nice, if not nicer, that her own Italian brew. And that the DJ spinning in the Holland Pavilion was actually droppin’ cooler beats than David Guetta, and that the view from the restaurant at the Angola Pavilion was in fact more breath-taking than the views over the River Thames from the London Eye big wheel. It’s true.

Over the past half-year, this little backwater of Milan, Italy, transformed into a multicultural wonderland. To think that it has all been taken down brings a tear to her eye, and sometimes she thinks that she would’ve rather have stayed there in that magical kingdom. But maybe it was the transient nature of it that made it all the more special and beautiful, like a perfect cherry blossom; view it before it inevitably blows away with a Spring breeze.

The interviewees this time were all critically involved with the organization of the Expo; so we have asked the same questions to 5 different people all involved with the Expo in different ways.

-What was your role at the Expo??

-Is the Expo a thing of your past, present or future??

1 – MATTEO, Multitasking Director (aka: The Multitasking Boss)

persone-2Sara Waka: You’ve done so much for the Milan Expo 2015! Can you make the summary of the summary of your role?

Matteo: My name is Matteo Gatto! For the Expo, I have had three different jobs in the space of nine years. First, I was chief architect. I designed the exhibition site of Expo from 2008 to 2011 with my team of 15 graduates, 4 senior engineers and the support of 16 true architectural masters. Later, I was the scientific coordinator for the design of the thematic areas (Pavillion 0, Slow food, Biodiversity Park ). By the end, six months after the opening, I was director of the ‘Visitor Experience‘. In this I designed the interface of visitor signage, decor, service facilities, and now I am planning how we can recycle the material we used for the Expo.

Sara Waka: Is the Expo a thing of your past, present or future??

Matteo: PAST. I spent more than nine years on this project and it was a great opportunity to prove myself and to show the talents of mine and the “Made in Italy” brand in general. The thing that was the most rewarding was seeing the excitement on the faces of visitors. At the Expo, in the evening I often went to eat incognito among the visitors, and asked them what they liked: I can tell you that, despite the queues, satisfaction was very high. The people who were dissatisfied had acquired an expectation for something that was not quite what the Expo concept is. In recent years, there has been the idea that the Expo is supposed to be the solution to some cultural or scientific problems, which go beyond the scope of the event. Right since the first Expo in 1889, it is an opportunity for entertainment and fun. There were cultural and scientific events, of course, but these were sometimes difficult to locate or spot perceive when strolling around casually.

2 – CLAUDIA, the Information Point Girl (aka: Miss Brooch 2015)

Sara Waka: I promise that if you do the interview, I will give you the Japan Pavilion brooch! (Among the young at the Expo, it was the in-thing-to-do to collect the brooch of each country. The Japanese brooch was especially rare and everybody wanted it!) So, tell me who you are?

persone-1Claudia: Look, I want it so baaaad!! I am Claudia Privitera from Sicily. I am sincere in admitting that I did not know exactly what the Expo would be before I came here. Today, after nearly six months working here, I can say that the Expo is to have the world in the palm of your hand: a fascinating mix of lights, tastes and smells. But, for me especially, the Expo is the wealth of human relationships that I made and it was an important stage for personal growth. The Expo has changed me deeply: I was a pessimistic and insecure person, I saw in my life only insurmountable obstacles and negativity. The call to come and work here saved me. It was a pearl of positivity. Since that day, I have collected many memories, but one I was touched by one in particular: one day, during the break, I jumped in the Ivory Coast Pavilion to ask for their brooch for my collection. The boy playing the drums in the hall told me sorry that he had finished for the day. Then I asked him to continue to play for a little longer, because always I have a passion for percussion instruments. He was surprised by my skill and, to prove it, he gave me a beautiful handmade djembe. You can not imagine how much I enjoyed that. Not only to the object itself, but the gesture. These are things to which we are not used to in Italy anymore. And it is in these “attitudes” you can see that often those in the poorer countries have the biggest hearts.

Sara Waka: Is the Expo a thing of your past, present or future??

Claudia: FUTURE! Expo 2015 was a trampoline towards the positive. I know I’ll get a job at the end of this experience, because I have become stronger and am more sure of myself and of my abilities. The Expo has made me want to get out there and in the future plan to do an experience abroad. Before I was a bit scared and hesitant, but now I’m ready to take the plunge!

3 – ISHII, PR producer of Japanese Pavilion (aka: SaraWaka’s BBF)

Sara Waka: Brief but intense: I think that is what we can call our friendship, my dearest Ishii-san! Explain the character you are and what image you have of Expo, in your fourth stint working at one!

persone-3Ishii: I worked for Expo Aichi in Japan, Expo Yeosu in Korea, Shanghai Expo in China and finally Milan Expo. Each time I have met many people but I lose their contacts, but between you and me it is different: I’m sure our friendship will be long-term! (laugh) My name is Ryuhei Ishii and I am the Chief Producer of Events and Public Relations for the Japan Pavilion. It is now 10 years that I have been working for Universal Exhibitions, but I still remember that, before I started, Expos for me were part of an incredible world, like you would find in the comic “20th Century Boys” (Ed: a manga by Naoki Urasawa, published from 1999 to 2006 and which has a dark universe, pseudo-science fiction, inspired by the Osaka Expo in 1970). At the time, I never thought of working for Expo for such a long period!

Sara Waka: Is the Expo a thing of your past, present or future??

Ishii: PRESENT! This is the fourth time I’ve worked for Expo and, honestly, each time has an amazing impact on me, but Expo Milano 2015 is as I had imagined. It allowed me, however, to learn more about Italian culture, the real stuff beyond the clichés. I noticed that the intellectual curiosity of visitors is undoubtedly more present here in Milan than Shanghai, but logistically Italy cannot compete with the East. For example, if in May there is the opening of Expo, in Shanghai are capable of building a road in a day to finish in time. Instead, here in Milan, on the opening day, the Italian Pavilion was half-finished. It was not an isolated case … Let’s say that for me, I have the Japanese mentality – it was hard to get used to these Italian manners! With adjustments to routine and schedule changes daily, I learned to deal with unforeseen problems and find a solution quickly, without thinking about it every time or consulting with colleagues for days as the Japanese would tend to. I learned that perfection is not always a strong point but, in some ways, it could also be a weakness.

4 – MARIO*, an assistant volunteer from the convict group at the Expo (aka: The Godfather)
* (Not his real name, for privacy reasons)

Sara Waka: Oh! Finally one of the detainees agrees to do the interview! Do not worry – I will not write anything bad! Trust me!

Mario: Damn! The last time I trusted somebody I went down for 20 years… (laughs). I admit that I had not the slightest idea of what the persone-5Expo would be. This year, fate destined me to be part of the detainee employees to help official staff of the Expo. From the 6th of May, I was in position at the turnstiles and, every day, I have managed thousands of people who lined up impatiently. The first time I set foot here in Expo Milano it looks like a theatre. It was all so strange, I felt like I was in an amusement park. I was intrigued, but I had so much frustration and stress for being around so many people. You know, I don’t feel comfortable when I see such crowds… However, I have good memories of the Expo, especially for human relationships. Before [entering prison] I was a bright man, everywhere I went I was the king. But here I arrived and I was nobody, but I got to know little by little. I found simple people, genuine people. I made contact with some girls who were like daughters to me.

[The conversation is interrupted by the arrival of another convict. A young Lithuanian, so excited to have finally found, the super rare brooch of Kazakhstan his last day in Expo. He gives it to Mario, as a sign of


Kazakhstan Brooch

friendship, greets him hugging him tightly and recommending in a fatherly fashion that he not plunge any deeper into trouble with his stories of illegal imports!]

Sara Waka: Is the Expo a thing of your past, present or future??

Mario: Girl, you have to learn to live in the NOW, you never know what happens in life. The past is past and we cannot go back, and what the future holds is unpredictable. The important thing is to live every day without regrets.

Seemingly simple questions, but all the answers were very different and sometimes exciting. For each of them, Milano Expo 2015 has been a challenge and an adventure that, in one way or another, has left its mark.


The last show of Tree of Life

Description & Interview: Sara Waka

Edited by : BJ Fox