On Land, On Sea, In the Air, In Scale

photo: then the balloon went up

A 'first' for me - indoor hot-air ballooning.

The 20th Salon de la Maquette

Paris:- Saturday, 3. April 1999:- Last Wednesday the city was washed in very grand, spring weather. It felt so good, I thought it would go on; although it has been day-on bright, day-off cloudy pretty consistently for a couple of weeks now.

I knew I would be at the Salon de la Maquette today. It occurred to me, belatedly, that this would also be Easter weekend and for the first time I can remember it didn't look like there would be snow - probably because it is so early in the year.

So, my thinking last Wednesday went like this: if there will be no snow this Easter, the Italians and Spaniards who normally visit Paris for this weekend, will be crazy with joy of the sun on Montmartre, instead of grimly 'bearing it.'

This would be a rare thing to see, but it would mean giving less attention to the Salon de la Maquette. Therefore, as I was in the Latin Quarter where there is the big, three-shop model empire named EOL, I should stop in to see if I could get an advance clue to this year's Salon attractions.

The first thing I learned was EOL did not plan to exhibit at the Salon. Why do it, when they are virtually a year-round 'salon' themselves?

As it turned out, sunny Wednesday was followed by sunny Thursday and bright Friday. Today, therefore, is not sunny at all; the temperature hasphoto: ship of loto cards fallen and it is trying to rain. Not as cold as usual, but 'Easter' weather all the same and hardly worth going up on Montmartre to see the less than sunny faces of the Italians and Spaniards. Darn it.

A 'first' in some category - a ship made of lottery cards.

There is a big crowd in the métro from Concorde, but most have already gotten off by the time the train reaches the Porte de Versailles. I am wondering about the model show starting on Easter weekend, when a lot of people have left town.

But inside, the bleachers are nearly full, over-looking the large basin for the boat demonstrations. It is about lunchtime, so there should be more later on.

One of reasons for visiting the EOL shops on Wednesday was to find out what the French sector of the industry is up to; so I would be able to look for it today. But the owner of EOL just shook his head when I asked him - in France the model 'business' is in decline; there is virtually no French production today.

True or not, the only way to find it at the salon is to troll the aisles; front to back, side to side. With two boat basins, one large space for aerial displays, a track for wheeled models, and some other large displays - the army, gendarmerie, the navy, the firemen - 'combing' the salon systematically is not a straightforward matter.

Some readers may consider making models to be a form of play and it is. There is nothing wrong with 'play.' A form of it that sees objects get built by hand is more serious than just 'play' because not everything in this world comes to us pre-assembled and neatly prepackaged.

The complete car you buy, started out as a scale model. Even if, in our modern times, this model is largely determined from a 3-D software model - somebody has to 'steer' that too. Somebody has to figure out the data to start the thing going.

In other words, not all model making is 'play.' At the stand of the I.U.T. engineering school at Ville d'Avrey, I talk to one of the students. I.U.T. is sharing the booth with another engineering school, the Lycée Agora of Puteaux. The 'Agora' school displays a couple of experimental, high-milage vehicles.

This brings to mind Renault's recent announcement of taking a 30 billion-franc stake in the Japanese car maker, Nissan. Besides bailing Nissan out of a bad debt situation and somehow being able tophoto: paper horse transform Nissan's market areas into Renault 'market areas,' another reason for making the monster financial state is to get access to Nissan's off-road, four-wheel-drive technology.

Both the I.U.T and the 'Agora' engineering schools are about 15-minute drives away from Renault's world headquarters in Boulogne-Billancourt.

In a corner of the games salon, models made of folded paper.

So I ask the I.U.T student if his school could make and build a model of an off-road, four-wheel-drive, truck. Actually what I say is, they should steal a 1944 Jeep from the war-vehicle collection display at this salon and take it back to their school to use as the basis model for a re-engineering job.

Renault is partly or entirely state-owned and its managers see nothing wrong with exporting the profits squeezed out of the tremendously competitive European market, to buy a part of Japanese model-maker's ingenuity - when they can get it, in theory, at home, no more than a 15-minute drive from HQ. Plus, Renault does make its own trucks.

Apparently, French student model-makers, in the dozens of highly- regarded French engineering schools in France, are not up to snuff. Japanese engineers, therefore, will get the French cash.

I've already mentioned that the army, gendarmerie, the navy, and the firemen are showing off their equipment - all 'made in France' - as lures to get young people to sign up to enter service with them.

France doesn't buy battle tanks engineered in Japan; France buys and uses French engineering. It may be expensive to do this - keep up this body of engineering talent just for this - but France does it. This is one reason for all of the engineering schools.

So, in a way, this annual Salon de la Maquette is sort of a pre-recruitment show for future modelers.

As I take my zig-zag tour through the salon I can't help noticing that ninety-five percent of the people on the stands giving demonstrations of model-making are at least 30 years old.

One fellow, about this age, is making miniature railroad tracks. He takesphoto: models of ships a rail, not much larger than a piece of fine wire, and heats an end of it. Then he places it gingerly where it is supposed to go on a tacked-down set of sleepers; but drops the rail when a finger touches the hot end.

Perfectly ordinary - but highly detailed - historical model ships.

It doesn't look as difficult as making a ship in a bottle, but it looks about as delicate, even though it is only a fairly simple track section. These are also available ready-made, on several other stands.

There is a whole line of guys making these model railroad parts here. A sign says you can ask them questions; they are listening, even if they appear not to be.

Elsewhere, there are many big stands, with big-name logos. On these stands are small models and big models, and these can be had in various stages of do-it-yourself; from ready-to-run or fly, to requiring complete assembly.

It is beginning to look like the world of modelling is divided into two continents - those who make as much as they can by hand, and those who want to pay, unwrap and play.

While I was at EOL on the Boulevard Saint-Germain on Wednesday, a mother came in with her son and wanted to know how this shop could have the nerve to sell the lad a model for 1,400 francs. Couldn't they see he was too young to spend 1,400 francs for something like this?

I didn't see what it was exactly, except it was a big box in a big plastic sack. The boy, on inline rollers, was big too, but not old. After the contents of sack and box had been verified, mom got her money back.

The way it is, it looks like younger people want it ready-made or they want it to be a game. The Salon de la Maquette is also the Salon des Jeux, and in this area the average age is much lower.

There are the 'thinking' games like the classical ones of 'Go' or chess. And there are games of strategy, of roles; which have everything prefabricated, including the scenarios. What is not on show, are any video games.

I don't see why not. Like the second category of games, they are prefabricated too. Some of them can be played by multiple players; some of them by multiple players on the Internet.

But like the prefabricated 'fly-out-of-the-box' models, there is nothing to make or invent. The scripts are written, and the goal is usually to find the hidden 'tricks' as quickly as possible. Once the game is mastered, it is time to trade it in for a new one.

The largest amount of handwork you see at this salon is in the area of scale models; of ships, aircraftposter: model air show, 26-27 june and the model trains. For these there are the support suppliers of parts, and the tool makers who provide the tools - many miniature - for making models, but also for making parts.

That these exist, proves that people are still making models. But, as far as salon area goes, their stands take up only a little space.

Next date - 26 and 27 June at La Ferté-Alais, for the flying models.

This evening's TV-news has a 150-second report about the salon's opening day. The remote-controlled helicopters get the biggest part of the brief time, but a very nice DC-3 makes a beautiful landing on a modelled and scale airfield.

The report concludes with the 12 year-old French 'ace' pilot of free-flight model airplanes. He holds a remote control and is looking upwards with concentration, to just under the roof where a stock, out-of-the-box, low-wing monoplane is flying upsidedown.

The kids are going for the action - so long as somebody else builds the stuff to do it with for them. With Renault as a role-model, who can blame them?

EOL - three shops close together, at 55, 62 and 70. Boulevard Saint-Germain, Paris 5. Open on Monday from 13:00 to 20:00; and from Tuesday to Saturday, from 8:00 to 20:OO. Info. Tel.: 01 43 54 01 43.

Salon de la Maquette 1999 - the 20th edition kicked off today and continues until Sunday, 11. April. Co-jointly, the 14th Salon des Jeux. Open from 10:00 to 19:00, and until 22:00 on Thursday, 9. April. Entry: 65 francs for adults over 12; for kids from seven to 12, 45 francs . At Paris-Expo, Porte de Versailles.

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