Having traveled all the way across Shanghai to go to Expo 2010, and having experienced the wonder of both the New Zealand and Brunei pavilions, I was now in Europe. Once in the European section I of course skipped all the countries I know and went straight to the “rest of Europe” row. This is a little street with two long, low buildings on either side, in which various small countries have staked their claims, building tidy little pavilions in large rooms, each of which had a manageable line in front of it. This was perfect for me; the countries included Lichtenstein, Cyprus, San Marino, Armenia, Moldova, Albania, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Malta, none of which I had ever been to and none of which, with the exception of Malta, I can really imagine visiting.
I have to say that I didn’t actually enter all of them. I did enter a couple and I peeked into the others, so here’s a brief tour of selected obscure European nations:
San Marino: This country proudly touts itself “The World’s Oldest and Smallest Republic” (raising the question of whether this means they hold both titles independently or whether they are just the oldest of the smallest republics, but never mind). The San Marino pavilion has nice pictures of a small Italian mountain village. The mountain village in question constitutes the entirety of the country.
Lichtenstein: Their pavilion looks a lot like San Marino’s, without the socio-political history.
Georgia: Nice pictures of mountains and some yogurt.
Azerbaijan: Looks a lot like Georgia, except without yogurt.
Armenia: Looks a lot like Azerbaijan.
Malta: Ah, Malta is something else again. I’ve always wanted to go to Malta. First, I have a thing about Mediterranean islands (read my Corsica dispatches). Second, I have a thing about history, and third, I have a thing about castles and old fortifications and windy streets and ancient ruins and cliffs and stuff (OK, I’m up to fourth, fifth, etc) and Malta has it all. It also has a really cool language that no one else can recognize and what’s more, I have an old friend from Malta who’s constantly berating me for not having yet visited. Despite my plans on getting there one day, I thought I’d stop in. The little pavilion has a cool film (in Chinese, but you get the drift via the images), fake ruins, a real pub and a big Playmobil knight outside. I’m doubly intent on going one day.
After making the rounds of obscure European nations, I thought it was time to head to Africa. The sad truth is that I have never been south of the Sahara in Africa. I would love to go. I have a number of African friends and from everything I know of the continent, I think I’d like it a great deal indeed. And here we had so many African nations all lined up! I decided to spend the rest of my day visiting their pavilions.
On the way, however, I came across a “licensed-products store.” I needed two things: a hat (to keep the incessant drizzle off my head) and more paper, since I was taking far more notes than I had expected. I also thought it would be something of a hoot, so I stopped in.
Oh, it was a hoot all right. First of all, if Chinese are bad in lines, they’re worse in lines inside licensed-products stores. They love this stuff, they snatch it all up. There were piles and piles of toys, pins, dolls, figurines of that annoying little blue expo mascot thingy; there were official paper clips and pop-up pavilions and pens and personal hygiene kits. There was official Expo 2010 “roasted squid shred.” There were T-shirts ad nauseum and, of course, official caps, one of which was just barely on the acceptable side of gaudy. There was not, however, any paper, official or otherwise, so I ended up covering my meager sheets in even tinier, less comprehensible script, which I shall even now officially blame for any factual inconsistencies in this report. Anyway, I bought my cap, wedged between shrieking Chinese only-children and shrill Chinese harried mothers. It was the first time in the day that I was actually thankful to get back outside in the sweat-sky.
With cap on head, it was off to Africa for me.
The first pavilion I ran across was Libya. This was perfect. It wasn’t sub-Saharan, true, but I have never been there and there is roughly zero chance I’ll ever go. Plus, there was NO LINE AT ALL. Not a single person was waiting to get into Libya. I thought that perhaps it had been closed via some capricious presidential decree, but no, it’s just that nobody cares about Libya.
The Libyan pavilion is a real, free-standing pavilion with desert scenes on the outside. It also has desert scenes on the inside. I learned a lot—such as the fact that Libya is really called “The Great Arab People’s Jamahiriya.” That’s actually all I learned. The first room was kind of nice, relatively pretty, and I was looking forward to being impressed in the second room, but the second room turned out to be simply a corridor leading to the door out. Oh well.
Nigeria, I thought, would be much more fun, and it too was line-less! What was with people, didn’t they want to discover Nigeria? Nigeria fascinates me—it’s really big (140 million people); it has the highest level of corruption in the world; it is an international hub for all kinds of illegal activities; and it has fantastic music (from Fela Kuti to Keziah Jones). It’s the wild, wild west of Africa, and that’s saying a lot. I immediately dove into the Nigerian pavilion.
… Which is a store. The Nigerian pavilion has carved masks and things on the wall, drums scattered around, (great) music pounding on the sound system, racks of T-shirts, counters overflowing with beads and jewelry. Everything is for sale, except tattoos. There is one table where one Chinese man and two Chinese women were rubbing people’s arms. They called me over and said, “Tattoo!” In front of them were buttons for the “Nigerian Football Federation” and they were applying decal tattoos of some colorful design.
“Free!” the man said.
“Yes,” I replied, “but what is it?”
“But what is the design?”
“What the hell.”
I also spoke with an actual Nigerian, behind a counter selling necklaces. He said he had been in China for six months.
“How do you like the job?”
“It’s good,” he replied. “Some Chinese, you know, they come, they buy a necklace, they say, ‘This is good, it is African.’ I love them.”
I complimented the music they were playing and asked him who decided what music to play over the sound system.
“My boss. He is upstairs. We are going to have a concert next week. Nigerian music. Musicians will come to play here.”
“Really? Who’s coming?”
“I don’t know, man.”
“How about Keziah? Do you think they might come here to play before the end of the expo?”
“I don’t know, man. I don’t think anybody really knows. Maybe, though. You never know.”
I like Africa.
Next to Nigeria is the Angolan pavilion, which is really nice outside. It has a cool leafy kind of design and big, carved wooden pillars. Upon entering, visitors are greeted by a stunning Angolan woman who hands out hair ribbons to the girls. Inside is a little café, a history of Angolan currency, a few drums, a little stage. It’s less overtly commercial than the Nigerian pavilion. In fact, all pavilions are less overtly commercial than the Nigerian pavilion.
It was upon leaving the Angolan pavilion that I saw the jackpot, the treasure at the end of the rainbow. This was the “Africa Pavilion”. It is, essentially, the “Rest of Africa” Hall of Wonders, where every single country not big enough for its own pavilion—not even big enough for the single-door pavilions of Moldova and Azerbaijan, can set up a display under one big African roof. There are similar group pavilions for Oceana and South America, but I was on an African roll and I knew this was the place to go.
I was not to be disappointed.