Bambini Can Taste the World at Expo in Milan

Food makes people do crazy, great things. At this year’s World Expo (a.k.a. World’s Fair) in Milan, food makes Iran and the United States across-the-street neighbors (fingers crossed that one needs a cup of sugar). It makes Disney design the only character it’s ever created for anyone other than itself, Foody the Mascot, out of a fruit-and-vegetable salad (see the video below.) It makes 90-pound Cirque de Soleil performers produce a show celebrating eating. And this year, Expo earns its “fair” designation with vacation-worthy kid activites reminding all visitors that no matter what else food is, it’s fun.

From May 1 through October 31, the World Expo in Milan offers a million square meters of vacation activities focused on a single theme both kids and their parents love—food. A food writer born with the last name Zupa (soup in Italian), I always think it’s the right time to take your child eating in Milan. But this year, it’s especially right.

My six-year-old son’s generation must embrace global citizenship, with a worldwide population rising to 9 billion by 2050 with no obvious plan to feed us all. Expo Milano: Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life is a summer holiday that will expose him to people from 145 countries, each ready to tell their stories through that most powerful universal language, food.

It’s not yet publicized information that Iran and the United States have food pavilions meters away from each other—I noticed it on my hard-hat tour of Expo last month. I can’t wait to take my son into the Iranian pavilion and explain to him while we are eating their food, that these are our “enemies.” I hope an Iranian mother somewhere right now is thinking the same thing about the U.S. pavilion, especially after the U.S.-Iran scuffle at the last World Expo in 2010. (Perhaps those 47 letter-writing U.S. Senators should book reservations to dine there.)

Food and people, both coming straight from their native countries to represent in Milan, make this theme park authentic and potentially world-changing, with opportunities for even very young children to think about larger food issues. And the later children start thinking about the world as “us” and “them,” the better it is for everyone.

Egyptian food made by Egyptians? Korean by Koreans? Russian by Russians? Done. All on the same day, under a canopied promenade, protected from the elements. Nothing says “we are the same” like the basics: laughter, shelter, meals. Expo isn’t set to be a melting pot, but a stew, with each country’s national flavor standing distinctly on its own. (For foodie parents, countries will also demonstrate food that is on the cutting edge of their culinary development.)

To eat in a pavilion, a guest must enter it—each country has created it own food program. Germany, for example, will have both a 150-seat family restaurant with traditional food and a higher-end restaurant, as well as a sunset bar. The United States pavilion will feature food trucks, with each selling cuisine from a different American region (New England or the southwest, for example). A great feature for anyone, but especially for parents: Pavilions will have timed-ticket options for those who want to avoid waiting in lines with kids. (Details will be available on Expo’s website.)

Fifty-four countries will have their own pavilions along the promenade, developing façades in their national styles, so there’s a lot for kids to look at even without entering a pavilion. Walk the length of Expo and it’s a child’s survey course in global style: Japan’s intricately interlocking smooth wood blocks contrast with Qatar’s desert palace.

Some countries have planned wow factors that will entertain all ages. Acrobats will harvest a vertical garden growing on the outside wall of the United States’ building, the produce used in wall-to-table food served inside. The German Pavilion will present an interactive exhibit showing a bee’s perspective flying over Stuttgart, with the bee’s speed and direction controllable by the audience.

Expo’s Children’s Park, with games and exhibits geared specifically toward kids, was designed by Reggio Children, a premier educational philosophy with a huge U.S. following. Engaging all of the senses, the interactive park includes an herb scent-identification site and a pedal orchestra, where children ride bikes to create music (ensuring that all that food is balanced with physical activity).

Head down to the cluster pavilions, where smaller countries, some of which could not build pavilions on their own, are grouped by commodities (rice, cereal, fruits, cocoa….basically stuff kids like to eat). Children at Expo will connect with the larger agricultural story by seeing the role of kids around the world in harvesting food. The cluster buildings in themselves are spectacular; kids will love playing around the fountains and watching themselves in the floor-to-roof mirrored exteriors.

Expo lies several miles outside of Milan, and will be connected by high-speed railway, so visitors will likely have lodging in the city. Many of the city’s landmarks, which usually close for a period during the summer, will remain open through 2015 for Expo visitors and hold special events, including the Milan Children’s Museum’s special exhibitions on food cultures and traditions

“Parents leave their children three things, “ believes Expo General Manager (Event Management Divisoin) Piero Galli: “religion, language, and the way they eat.” People constantly talk about the importance of food—it connects us all, it’s so powerful, blah, blah. Few ever turn the lip service into action the way Expo is. It all sounds a little dreamy…the world will still have problems outside of Expo’s gates. But envisioning and living the ideal for a few months will create a higher expectation of how we will live beyond those few months. And if that is the legacy, that’s a summer vacation well spent.

This is the first in a series of posts about Expo Milano: Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life.

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