Game Players and African Twigs

Ship waiting for ride in the basin

Games or Models; With Intense Interest

Paris:- Friday, 11. April 1997:- My misgivings about coming back to the Salon de la Maquette, are dissipated by the Champs- Elysées where I come up like a submarine to the surface, to capture the new posters - check the weather! - it's perfect - and crash-dive into the next métro entry, leaving no bubbles in my wake.

During my short time on the surface I paid a visit to the Madame of the toilets in the Drugstore and again admired their glitzy chrome, and zipped through the Tourist Office, to pick up the 'futures.'

In the métro again, I have more to read - besides today's Libération 'Multimedia' section - and in no time at all I am at the Porte de Versailles and Paris-Expo. Although the weather is bright and it is almost warm, I now have 'Salon-fever' and no misgivings at all.

I didn't get a press badge when I was here on Sunday, and they don't want to know today, so in I go - straight to the games.

Unlike many areas of the rest of this salon, there are no electronics at the Salon des Jeux. This is where game-type citizens try out the latest the card players card games, board games, puzzles, and other goofy things that used to be called pastimes - but ones usually done in company. The French term for them is 'jeux de societé,' or social games.

All hands are full of cards; but what is the name of the game?

The first stand looks like a poker party. There are four or five round tables and they are all occupied by card players. At the counter, the fellow behind it looks like a biker, and his glossy catalogue looks like one for snazzy computer games - well, everybody is using these graphics interchangeably now, and the paper is highly coated and glossy.

The catalogue is called 'Passion - Jeux des Rôles' and it contains the products of several French game producers, plus some games that are imported and translated.

In effect, there are 'role-playing' games, 'plateau'-games - which are simpler, but like the 'rôle' and society-games - then wargames, and finally, thematic card-games.

I can appreciate all these big guys sitting around inside on a nice day, trying out these card games instead of staring pinwheel-eyed into a computer monitor, but if anyone asked - or forced - me to sit down and play a hand - I would get very sleepy very fast. I never used to build houses or hotels while playing Monopoly; so I could go bankrupt quickly.

At another display, a huge long table is divided into sections, and each section is the layout of a famous battle - the lead soldiers are lined up - just so! - and there is Gettysburg and Napoléon outside Moscow. Not supposed to touch this. I shoot some desert battle, but the figures come out too small in the photo.

Behind are several booths, with players of these games - very intense players. Two of them have builder's measuring tapes and they are placing figures, or groups of them, to the exact millimetre. You can see the tension of it in the measuring tapes. There is an umpire watching, and the players refer to note, or score, sheets.

The airplanes on demo flights have a huge crowd of spectators and the basins are empty of ships for the moment, so I head for the small booths where the odd stuff is. The bigger booths are occupied by either model shops - there are a fair number in Paris - or by kit manufacturers. The train people are big, and they have their big layouts too. The car people even have a medium-sized racetrack; but I'd just as soon not hear loud noises.

The modest stand of Aprime has a display of models of mahogany racing boats, based on actual runabouts from the '30's. They have Ernesto Riva's 'Primavera,' the one for which Prince Rainier had to wait two years. I think I saw originals like these at the Salon Nautique.

The kits come in two versions: 'rapid' assembly and full assembly, which requires much more hand work. All of the different boats are also offered 'ready to display' - which costs up to US$1,000 - for the 'Primavera.' Various motors for the boats, The Navy's submarine as well as radio-command units, are also available - and can add another US$500 to their price. Worth every penny.

The French Navy has a stand which is not quite so modest; but it is not overloaded - featuring a few models, made by sailors. Ah yes, the old story: on long sea voyages, the sailors pass the time making ships in bottles. Not here!

French Navy submarine in box-shaped bottle.

Aircraft carriers are too big to fit in even sailor-sized bottles. The submarine might fit in a bottle, but it is in a plexiglass case instead. Judging from other models seen at this salon, these are not mere wood carvings; they most likely have miniature nuclear motors in them, plus full navigational gear.

Another modest booth has something unique. Pictures of houses, made with straw from Africa. Virginie de Rouquefeuil and Claire de Trogoff spent a fair amount of time in Africa and picked up the art of this 'painting with straw' in Cameroon, and six months ago, decided to turn it into a business.

Actually, the houses are more like colleges, with an incredible variety of textures, of the different sorts of straw, bark, wood chips, twigs - and I don't know what the ultra-tiny tree-leaves the straw housewere, but they looked like leaves. The photo is of a print, and it is a pale copy, just as the print is a pale copy of the real thing. They are wonderful.

Houses made of straw are a delight to look at.

The kits are 475 francs and this gets you a heavy paper base upon which the design of the house is lightly printed. The materials are in a glassine envelope, and they are all imported from Cameroon. You have to find the pieces and cut them to fit and place them. As the material is thin, pieces can overlap like with a college, which is what they are.

There are a couple of models for kids to do too, and they cost half of the adult versions, and their underlying designs are more simple. It is the effect, of the natural textures and colors, that is so pleasing. Sort of eye-candy made out of plant stuff picked up from the ground, in Africa.

In the middle of taking the photo at 'Feuillépaille,' the camera's batteries went to zero and I have run off and find some spares, because my spares are flat too. On the way I pass an electronic-widget booth, and when I've got my batteries and the shot of the house, I return to this stand.

Let's say you've spent 500 hours building a super airplane, with a motor and radio controls. Too bad you are too big to go for a ride in it.

But with one of Crelec Electronique's miniature video cameras placed in the pilot's seat, you can not only 'fly it' from that position, you can video-tape your flight for viewing later. One TV set shows a screen split into four, with each segment being viewed by one of four miniature cameras - none larger than a Mont Blanc fountain pen, and most of them a lot smaller.

This company makes snooper tools; but they have been outlawed in France since 1994. The company still makes the spy stuff, but only for export - and for sale to certain French government agencies. In order to stay in business, Crelec has concentrated on its video sector, and the miniaturization fits in nicely with the scale models. One small camera is 18 millimetres in diametre and 52 mm long and another fits inside a baseball cap - which is handy if you like playing 'hidden camera' with your head.

A slightly larger camera, with PAL-norm output and an adapted 55mm Macro-Nikkor lens was used for all the photography used in their brochures - and there are 12 photos of very small things on each page.

Besides having no memory left in my camera, these things are too small to capture - just like the armies of lead soldiers, on Moscow's outskirts, waiting for their 'jeu d'histoire' to begin.

Outside, the weather has changed. The sky is full of grey and wind is coming from the east.

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