MILAN — At Milan Expo 2015, it's still an analog world, after all.
The Milan world's fair, which opened May 1 for a six-month run, delights with an urban mishmash of global architecture and culinary specialties as organizers seek to advance a universal conversation on how to guarantee food for all while protecting the environment.
One of the fair's chief appeals is the tight urban interplay of representational architectural styles that surprise more than command: Nepalese stupa, Kuwaiti sails, Tajik tiles, Thai bamboo pillars, a Moroccan mud-brick structure, the United Kingdom's enchanting fairy-lit honeycomb and vertical gardens cultivated on the walls of the U.S. and Israeli pavilions.
"I did not know what to expect from an Expo," said German visitor Gabriele Kumlin, who spent 12 hours roaming the Expo grounds on Monday. "I was really surprised how beautiful these pavilions were. I loved the whole setting."
The Expo has an ambitious agenda beyond being a global street fair, with the Italian government backing a process to create a document aimed at creating food security, fighting waste, combating hunger and guaranteeing good nutrition. Visitors, businesses and civil society are invited to sign the so-called Milan Charter, which is to be presented to U.N. Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon when the fair ends.
Some pavilions are more on message than others, taking to heart Expo's mission to contemplate the planet's dwindling natural resources and stimulate action. Others are more pointed at promoting tourism to off-the-beaten path destinations.
There's an interesting mix of hands-on experience and technology to involve visitors in the discussion -- with the analog experience winning out in many cases, perhaps due to the nature of the topic of food and agriculture.
Water is the focus of many desert nations. Kuwait greets visitors to its pavilion with a curtain of water that spells out "Water is the element for survival" in English, then Italian then Arabic.
Germany mixes high-tech and low-tech, giving visitors a piece of cardboard that displays ecological facts when held over designated displays in a walk-through landscape. Take-home instruction sheets offer advice on creating wall gardens from plastic bottles.
The technologically advanced Japan pavilion has an app that allows visitors to collect pictures, including an engaging scene of dancing animals in a virtual rice paddy, and finishes in a restaurant-style theater where visitors use chopsticks to interact.
The layout of the Expo reflects the geometric simplicity of the site's Roman-era street plan: a 1.5 kilometer (mile-long) main drag providing a view of all of the 53 national pavilions called Decumano. It's intersected by a 350-meter (nearly a quarter mile) Cardo cross-road that provides an axis between the host Italian pavilion and the Tree of Life sculpture, and the Expo's open-air theater.
Amid it all are culinary specialties from street food to gourmet cuisine, from virtually every corner of the globe — not an exaggeration if you consider Expo's boast that the more than 140 participating countries comprise more than 90 percent of the world's population.
With so much to take in, the Austrian pavilion offers the best advice to Expo visitors: Breathe. The word comes into view, formed by stationary letters that align as visitors walk up the path into Austria's restorative, transplanted forest.
Some observations from Expo's early days:
OPENING DAY JITTERS
Marred by a corruption scandal and with construction running behind schedule right into the final stretch, Italian media fretted up to the end about Italy's preparedness to take on such a global event. The Italian government's Expo commissioner downplayed the naysaying, saying on opening day, "I think if we forget the details, and look at the beauty, it is an extraordinary beauty."
Opening day, in fact, felt more like a preview, with construction debris between pavilions, malfunctioning interactive maps and no volunteers to point visitors in the right direction. Also missing: benches along the main thoroughfares to take a breather.
Several country pavilions were not fully open, and by day four, a full one-quarter of the themed cluster spaces weren't open. The cluster spaces represent countries by geography, like islands, or group countries that couldn't afford to participate individually around foods like cocoa and rice.
Expo is all about food -- but that doesn't mean it's free human grazing. Some disappointed visitors seemed to expect the base 39 euro ($43.40) ticket to include a global culinary sampling, according to Italian media reports. Most national pavilions also have a restaurant, bar and/or street food offering. Prices vary from 5 euros to 90 euros in more upscale settings, causing sticker shock among some guests.
The U.S. has imported six food trucks celebrating regional food and ethnic fusion, and it's opening a temporary James Beard American Restaurant in central Milan offering unique American meals like Thanksgiving.
These are the spontaneous moments that make the Expo experience: Tajik folk dancers leaping wildly in front of the tiled pavilion. An informal after-dinner concert inside the Kuwait pavilion restaurant, with men in full headdresses singing and playing. A mini-Ferris wheel at the Dutch carnival. A chance to decorate Slovak gingerbread.
Cirque du Soleil has created a show just for Expo that opens later this month and runs through late August, requiring a separate ticket. And in a clear sign of the Disney influence on this world's fair, the Disney-created mascot, Foody, will parade down the Decumano twice a day, drumming up Expo spirit.