Italy / Language / Other / Travel

Volunteering at the World Expo Milan 2015

When I put “do some volunteering” on my bucket list last year, I must admit I did not expect it to be on quite such a large-scale. Neither did I expect to be picked to be part of the team from thousands of applicants, following a Skype interview in Italian. But alas, expect the unexpected, right?


So like I said, following an application form, a motivational personal statement, a lengthy online training scheme and a Skype interview, I was invited to volunteer for the European Union at the Expo in Milan. Happy days! After my exams I packed my suitcase and hopped on the train to Milan to meet the rest of the team, attend the Welcome Talk, and start my two weeks at the Expo.

What is Expo?


A question a lot of people have asked me. I hadn’t really heard much about it either before arriving in Italy, but being most probably the biggest event of the year in Italy, it is EVERYWHERE.
For all the info, see the website here. But for a quick round-up…
Expo Milan 2015 is a universal exposition hosted in Italy this year from 1st May until 31st October, and is the biggest food and nutrition event ever. During these six months, the Expo serves as a “vetrina mondiale” – a world showcase – in which countries demonstrate their plans, projects and technology in response to the chosen theme and vital demand in exhibition at the Expo – Feeding the Planet; Energy for Life. In other words being able to provide enough healthy and safe food for the world’s population whilst providing for a balanced and sustainable future. It is a global platform encouraging creativity and promoting innovation, upon which over 140 countries share and compare their ideas and solutions regarding the theme of food.
Each of the 145 countries participating has a pavilion, designed and created by said nation, portraying their response to the theme of food. Each pavilion is free to enter; you pay your entry ticket into the whole exhibition and then entry into all pavilions is then without charge, as is the shuttle bus to ferry you around the 1.1 million square meters of exhibition area – getting from one end to the other was a good half and hour walk, and in 35°C+ temperatures…no thank you.

Why apply?

I read somewhere or heard someone describe it as “travel the world in a day“. I was sold.
I wanted to go (although I was thinking more along the lines of as a visitor), I wanted something to look forward to in order to get me through my exams, I had some spare time after the exams to fill, I still wanted some volunteering experience, and well, ‘what have I got to lose?‘, I thought? Turns out it was one of the best things I did throughout the whole year.
Also, I love travel and I love food. Sounded like the dream.

On mascot duty

What did you do?

As I mentioned above, I was part of a team of volunteers working for the European Union, who have their own pavilion. I worked 4-5 hours a day, everyday for two weeks, promoting the pavilion, welcoming the visitors and explaining the information chosen by the EU, throughout the pavilion. My hours were conveniently (or inconveniently, depending on which way you look at it) placed in the middle of the day – 1pm – 5:30pm – which meant we were free to explore the Expo both before and after our shift, free of charge! AND, Expo open its gates to staff at 9am but members of the public at 10am, so get there early and you can beat a couple of the long queues to the most popular pavilions.
Our team!

Our team!

The team was made up of students from all over Europe, myself being the only Brit, who all came together to give a balanced and diverse representation of the EU. This means I was working with people from all over Italy, Croatia, Bulgaria, Latvia, Germany, The Netherlands, France, Spain..the list goes on!
To be successful in your application, it was essential you had at least a level B2 in English (when interviewed, I wasn’t questioned on this….!) but Italian was a bonus rather than a requirement. Therefore many of the volunteers spoke little or no Italian, so upon arrival I assumed most communications would be carried out in English. I was, however, surprised at the amount of Italian I found myself speaking. Obviously with the Italian volunteers, but also the vast majority of visitors to the pavilion were Italian. I suppose being in Milan this is to be expected, but I did expect a lot more international visitors. There were a fair few, just not as many as I had originally thought. Perhaps due to the dates I was there; holiday season hadn’t quite started yet so maybe a lot of internationals were yet to come. Who knows?
The volunteers program ensured accommodation in Milan for all those not coming from Milan or the surrounding areas, so a lot of us were conveniently living together in university halls which was great. The only downside being we were at the complete other side of the city to Expo, which provided us with a commute everyday of anywhere between and hour and an hour and a half, there are back. Three hours on tubes and trams everyday in the sweltering heat was interesting. I can’t really complain though, I got to walk past the immensely spectacular Cathedral in the centre of Milan, twice a day everyday. Considering “Visit Milan” was one of the items on my bucket list, I never imagined I’d be living there for two weeks!

What did you think?


Overall, like I said, Expo was one of the best things I did over this year. Volunteering was fantastic and I gained so much, be that work experience, friends, knowledge, experiences etc. However exhausting the whole thing was, I loved it!
I would, however, question how much the pavilions actually stuck to the given theme and how much the whole thing just turned into tourism propaganda, with countries in essence just flaunting how good they are and why we should hop on a plane and go and visit. The one pavilion that did stick entirely to the theme without any flaunting was, of course, Germany. Their pavilion was so impressive and stayed loyal to the theme of food and feeding the planet throughout. At times it was a little like a museum in the sense that staying and reading every single piece of information would’ve taken you all day, but it was super interactive, informative and very well designed and created. Hat’s off to ya Germany, you did good.
The most impressive pavilions for me were Kazakhstan, The United Arab Emirates, Korea and Germany.
Kazakhstan in particular splashed a huge amount of money on their pavilion as the Expo 2017 will be held in Astana, and therefore their pavilion here in Europe served as an advert for people to come and visit the next Expo in their country. Their pavilion, however, was incredible, and much better than the Italian one, which had equally long queues (up to two hours!) but that I didn’t think was that special. The Italians in the team were also disappointed and thought that Expo being in their country, it could have been done a lot better.
Similarly, the UAE put a lot of money into their pavilion as in 2020, Dubai will play host to the World Expo; the first time that the World Expo will be staged in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia (MEASA).
In both the pavilion of Kazakhstan and of the UAE, after the main exhibition there was a further exhibition dedicated solely to their respective future World Expos.

Top 10 Tips for Expo:

1. Download the app

There is an EXPO MILANO 2015 Official App, which if you’re planning on going, I highly recommend you download. It is completely free, as is the WiFi in the whole Expo site, and allows you to see what is happening where and when on any given day. Expo is huge and there is so much going on that just can’t see everything all the time. However, each pavilion often puts on performances of traditional music/dance or offers taster sessions at certain times of day (free vodka in Russia…are you brave enough for the 11am session or will you wait until the later session at a more respectable time?!). Obviously you do see things on you way up and down and stop when something catches your eye, but we saw so many things we would not have other known about had it not been for the trusty app; we made our own chocolate in Switzerland (free entry but limited places) and saw a champion Brazilian barista do his thing with cappuccino art. All in a day’s work! So download the free and app and plan your day around the shows and spectacles to be seen, you won’t regret it.

2. Give yourself more than one day

I understand this is difficult as some people can only afford one day, for money reasons or lack of time, but where possible, I beg you to give yourself more than just one day at the Expo. I was there everyday for two weeks (okay, working as well) but I didn’t see every pavilion. I saw the ones I most wanted to see as I prioritised, but there is no way I could have seen everything I wanted to see in one day. Not possible. And this brings me nicely onto my next tip…

3. Prioritise what you want to see

Before you go, download the map or the leaflet and familiarise yourself with what there is. Circle the things you really really want to see and cross them off when you’re done. I’m not saying make yourself a strict plan with an itinerary and timetable of places you must be at certain times. But the Expo is so big that you will a) not be able to see EVERYTHING and b) waste a lot of time walking up and down the Decumano (the main street) if you’re constantly going back and forth. Plan the pavilions in the order they appear so as not to yo-yo from one end to the other all day.

4. Don’t avoid the pavilions because of the long queue!

There is a long queue for a reason! We queued for over and hour for Kazakhstan, the UAE and Japan and they were all worth it. Don’t spend your whole day queuing but don’t avoid the queues completely. We’re British, come on, if anyone can handle a little wait in line it’s us. (Kazakhstan also provided a live concert in the queuing area of some current Kazakh pop music – have I sold you on Kazakhstan enough yet?!)

5. Spend the WHOLE day

I keep saying how big Expo is and how much there is too see, so please please make the most of it! Be there at 10am when the gates open and stay until the end (see next tip!). It may be exhausting but you’ve paid your entry so make it worth your while.

6. Stay for the nighttime show

L’Albero della Vita – probably the most iconic image of the Expo, conveniently placed right next to the EU pavilion! Every hour, on the hour, it put on a music and fountain show, but if you don’t stay until 10pm, you will miss the most spectacular show of all. When it gets dark the show lasts longer and incorporates lights and fireworks into the music and water and the final product is quite a sight to see. DO NOT MISS IT! As volunteers as the EU pavilion we were lucky enough to be invited to watch the show from the terrace giving us an uninterrupted and higher up view of the show. This is unfortunately not open to the public though. The show is however just as impressive from the ground and you really grasp the enormity of the tree a lot more from the bottom.

L’Albero della Vita – The Tree of Life

7. Wear sensible shoes

Unless you’re a high up member of official staff or important member of state and can be ferried around in a little golf buggy by your chauffeur, you will be walking a lot. Even with the shuttle bus you’ll spend the majority of the day on your feet. I was baffled by the women in stilettos pacing up and down the Decumano. Seriously, comfortable footwear sounds like boring, overly practical and granny advice, but you’ll thank me later.

8. Go to the Coop

You’re going to the biggest food festival ever, why would you go to the supermarket?
Trust me, go to the Coop. There is a Coop supermarket within the Expo site that is not just any supermarket. This supermarket is labelled as the “supermarket of the future”. I’m talking, point at a banana and the screen above will display its origin, price, life history, family tree…! Want to know where, when and how that bottle of wine was made? Just point at it! Seriously cool, and not over priced. The prices in the Coop at Expo are in line with prices in all other Coops around Italy.

9. Collect your stamps

Passports are available for purchase at various places within the site, designed as a way of collecting stamps at each pavilion to show where you’ve been. Being there for a two weeks I bought myself one and gathered pretty decent collection of stamps from all of the pavilions I visited. However I also saw a lot of people getting their maps stamped instead, which obviously the staff are more than happy to do too. It just serves as quite a nice souvenir to show all the countries you’ve visited.

 10. Don’t be shy

When else are you going to be in such a culturally rich environment? Try new foods, volunteer to learn a new style of dance, talk to people! Everyone who works there, as a requirement, speaks English, so if you’re waiting in a queue, chat to the person manning the queue. There’s so much to learn and so much to try. Embrace it!
...don't forget to visit our homeland too, inspired by the journey of the honey bee and highlighting the vital role of pollination in the global food chain

…don’t forget to visit our homeland too, inspired by the journey of the honey bee and highlighting the vital role of pollination in the global food chain

…and there we have it, my take on volunteering at the World Expo Milan 2015. A fantastic way to finish of my Italian adventure.


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