I leave Croatia and head towards France, my next destination, traveling by ferry and train. Fortunately for me, Italy lays between the two, so I have the opportunity to spend a day or two visiting Venice and the World Expo in Milan.
I arrive in Venice from across the Adriatic, only a couple of hours after leaving Porec, Croatia. The catamaran must slow down to a crawl as we move close to the city, so I am able to get a good look at the grand edifices of Venice’s noble buildings as we putter into the harbor.
I approach Venice with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, for this marks the first time on my circumnavigation that I return to a country I have visited before. The first time I visited Venice, in 2006, I was on an ultra-budget summer European backpacking tour, following a route so well-worn by fellow 21-year-old party-travelers that there is practically a groove in the road from Rome to Venice for dragging a case of beer. I recall wandering around Venice, thoroughly lost, for hours, entranced by the city’s twisted canals and charming squares. During that visit I slept on a springy cot packed into a room with seven other young travelers and ate at a crowded cafeteria (where wine was on tap), that being all I could afford as a destitute student. When I visited Venice again a year later with my mother and sister, I experienced the relative luxury of sleeping in the attic of a fat chain-smoking Italian’s narrow row house in the garden district. I maintain a certain regret from both trips, however. A regret I intend to rectify.
I walk from the cruise ship terminal to the train station to store my bag—nobody wants to haul a bulging backpack along the edge of canals—and am reacquainted with the famous customer service of Italy. The left luggage service is run by the post office, and there is a long lineup of fellow travelers waiting to drop their bags. The wise among them have brought snacks and entertainment and seem in good spirits, but the rest are restless and angry, caught unawares by the slow pace of service in Italy. I wait for about 45 minutes before reaching the front of the lineup. At the counter is one man who slowly—very slowly—takes people’s payments, often carrying on a lengthy conversation before moving on to the next customer. Another man carries the bags, one at a time, into a backroom labyrinthine, taking about a minute per bag. A third man stands behind the luggage-fetching counter, although since there are no people retrieving their luggage at this time in the morning, he leans lackadaisically against a wall, doing nothing at all. I dread to think what the scene will look like in the afternoon, when all of these customers return in a hurry to catch their trains.
Casanova’s hot chocolate
Finally unburdened of my backpack, I beeline towards St. Mark’s Square, the famous piazza on the lagoon. Even bees can’t fly in a straight line in Venice, though, and it takes me over an hour to wind my way along the snaking paths, along canals, and past the narrow buildings, squares, and gates. There are signs mounted to the sides of the buildings pointing out the walking route to St. Mark’s, but the arrows are strangely bent and angled, making them difficult to interpret, particularly when a dozen small paths emanate from a central square. I am struck with the notion that unscrupulous shop owners intentionally rearrange the signs to misdirect tourists past their storefronts. At one point, about 20 minutes in, I mysteriously find myself back in front of the train station.
Eventually I do find St. Mark’s Square, though, and there I see what I have been looking for: The Florian Café. The Florian claims to be the oldest coffee house in Europe, having been in continuous operation for nearly 300 years. In earlier times it was the haunt of worldly intellectuals—Casanova reputedly staked out his latest prospects for female companionship from its windows. Now, the Florian is a tourist trap where fanny pack-wearing travelers pay princely sums to experience the former splendor of Venice. During my first visit to the city nine years ago I couldn’t afford anything on the menu, and during my second visit the staff were on strike. This time, though, I will not be denied the pleasure of pretending to be a member of the Enlightenment-era literati.
I march up to café and take a seat at a tiny table-for-one in a resplendent side room. The room is paneled with gilt mirrors and murals of draped figures sitting on clouds. I settle into the corner, trying as best as I can to conceal my grubby camera bag and waterproof jacket in the corner of the velveteen bench. Within seconds, a tuxedoed waiter approaches and asks what I would like. Unfortunately they are sold out of croissants (they’re only available in the morning, apparently), so I settle on a hot chocolate.
Figuring I have some time while I wait, I get out my notebook and pen and prepare to ink some profound thoughts, as seems fitting in such a place. To gain inspiration, I observe my fellow clients. A pair of Asian tourists clap with delight when a large ice cream sundae is brought on a silver tray. An enormous woman wearing a black lacy top squeezes herself behind a tiny marble table, her fat wobbling and flowing as if pulled by tidal forces. An arthritic old man tries for several minutes to sit down, the exertion showing plainly on his spotted face. A suave middle-aged man in an expensive suit surveys the room while absently eating a sandwich.
Less than two minutes later, my hot chocolate arrives. It is served in an elegantly etched glass cup with a silver handle, a carafe of water, a cookie, a petit chocolate, and a brochure advertising the appurtenances of luxury available for sale in the gift shop. I give up on my writing and instead listen to the live orchestra playing in the tent outside while I imbibe my glass of rich chocolate topped with silky mint cream. Delicious. When finished, the waiter promptly produces the bill, and I get the distinct impression that I am expected to vacate my seat for the next customer. So, I pay my waiter for the world’s most expensive hot chocolate—18 euros—don my jacket and camera bag, and resume my role as a scuzzy backpacker.
A few hours later, I realize that the waiter gave me as change an old 10 franc coin, which looks nearly identical to a 1 euro coin, but is worthless. Another example of exemplary Italian service.
From Venice to Milan
I return to the train station by waterbus (which is overcrowded, running late, and filled with angry Italians), fetch my bag, and take a commuter train to the mainland suburb of Mestre, where I spend the night before catching my early morning train to Milan, where I am stopping for the day to see World Expo 2015.
Wait, what? There’s still such a thing as World Expo? Everyone knows about the 1889 Paris World’s Fair, where the world’s tallest man-made structure, the Eiffel Tower, was unveiled to the world, or the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, where the latest industrial achievements were showcased. Canadians are likely familiar with Montreal’s 1967 fair, or Expo ’86 in Vancouver. But surely it doesn’t still happen, does it? It does still happen, and this year it’s being held in Milan, Italy.
I alight in Milan’s main train station, again drop my bag at the left luggage service (like Venice, it’s inexplicably run by the post office), and then navigate the subway system to the site of the fair. I’m positively giddy. How many chances in one’s life can one visit such a world-class, yet retro, attraction?
The World’s Fair
The exhibition is situated on a parcel of land in Milan’s north-west, right at the end of the subway line. When I get off the subway I walk along a long walkway, through the turnstiles, up stairs, over the tracks on a big new bridge, down stairs, along another long walkway, and then finally into the fair. I’m already exhausted. Luckily, there is a free sparkling water dispenser installed near the entrance, so I’m able to quench my thirst in style.
The exhibition grounds are organized around a grand pedestrian promenade, which is flanked on either side with the various exhibits and pavilions. The theme of Expo 2015 is “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life,” and many of the national pavilions are clustered according to a particular foodstuff that they are famous for, such as coffee (Guatemala, Kenya, Rwanda), chocolate (Cameroon, Cuba, Ghana), and rice (Bangladesh, Cambodia, Sierra Leone). Most of these pavilions are housed in small nondescript white-walled buildings with little character, probably reflecting their tiny budgets, but the surrounding exhibits are nevertheless quite informative. For example, I learn that the Fins consume more coffee per capita than anyone else on the planet. Fascinating.
As has become customary at Expo, the larger (and richer) participant nations try to outdo one another by constructing magnificent, interesting, or just plain outlandish pavilions. Malaysia’s looks like a cluster of three giant eggs. Monaco’s is constructed from colourful stacked shipping containers. Qatar’s looks like a stone castle topped with a multi-story woven basket. Argentina’s is accessed via an odd system of spiraling ramps, and Vietnam’s is built around what looks like a bunch of upturned matcha whisks. Even the Vatican has a pavilion, although Canada does not.
I am excited to see that Turkmenistan, a country that I visited about a month ago, has a pavilion, and I venture inside to see what they have concocted. By the front door is, of course, a giant portrait of the president—I can see that they haven’t toned down the personality cult for the benefit of the international community. The building appears to be constructed out of white marble and gold, just like the buildings in Ashgabat, and it is filled with displays showcasing conspicuous wealth and plaques making dubious claims of national prowess in everything from horse racing to manufacturing. In fact, such blatant grandstanding is common in many pavilions. Uzbekistan extols the internationally-renowned quality of its fruit and its world-class storage and distribution network (really?). The president of the Dominican Republic is worshiped in a documentary about his new agricultural policy. Yemen has the following slogan painted on the wall: “Coffee and honey. Yemen’s gift to the world.”
Many of the pavilions are indeed as impressive as they purport to be, and there are long queues, sometimes several hours long, to get in. The United Arab Emirates, China, Thailand, and Kazakhstan all seem very popular, and I regret that I do not have time to wait for them. I am able to get into the European Union’s, though, and am treated to an immersive experience explaining the food supply chain. In the first room, I am introduced to two fictional characters, a biologist and a farmer, through a series of artful illustrations shown on framed panels inside what looks like a cozy farm house. After that, I am guided through a sort of multi-sensory journey following the budding romantic relationship of the two protagonists that combines immersive audio, 3D animation, vibrations, and even an occasional spray of water. Although it’s sappy and almost unforgivably optimistic, it’s so well done that I walk out feeling cheerful and amused.
When I emerge from the EU exhibit I realize that I have overstayed my time—I have only an hour to get back to the central station to catch my onward train to Nice, France. So I rush as fast as I can back over the bridge and into the subway, wishing that I could spend a week here. I recommend it to everyone.