10,000 Minis On Display

photo: mini racing plane, ferte 2000 air meet

One of two identical racing planes at the salon.
This is the big one.

Annual Model Show Draws Huge Crowds

Paris:- Wednesday, 5. April 2000:- After brief bursts of fake spring - yesterday morning! - the weather has turned truly nasty in Paris. It always does it for Easter - but nobody believes me. They think all the Italians who will be in town will be wearing their ski duds for fashion's sake.

I am pretty sure I don't need to go to Boulogne, where the city museum concentrates on artifacts from the '30's. I pose the question to the doorman - the '30's' in Boulogne or the model salon at the Porte de Versailles? He votes for the models.

Going through the change of métro lines at Concorde I snag the métro's weekly newspaperphoto: model tancarville bridge to read on the long ride through Montparnasse and down to the bottom of the 15th, to Paris-Expo.

This paper usually has tips on new Paris hot spots or 'in' quartiers, but this week's edition tells me what it is that Parisians 'really want.' This isn't for me - this is for the lineup outside the Hôtel de Ville.

Not many souls are about at the Porte de Versailles, so I guess the International Model Show is the only thing on - but it's no-school day for many kids. I must be ahead of them.

A model of the Tancarville bridge - without the toll-booths.

I don't think today's kids have much spare time to do any modelling after doing their homework and their daily bouts with video and computer games, and their necessary doses of TV. To get them out of the house this afternoon, their parents will bring them here anyway.

Dads do it to sneak in peaks at things they like, but Moms do it as just another routine duty - as their kids' social directors.

When I brought my older one here a few years ago, he couldn't believe it. He couldn't take in that people made all of the stuff here themselves. The concept of it was beyond him, until he saw some huge Eiffel Tower made out of Lego pieces.

But modelling has been around forever. Last week at the newly re-opened 'Arts et Métiers' museum, I saw a lot of models - some of them hundreds of years old. I've had jobs where a model had to be made first, before the okay was given to go ahead with the real thing.

Since they are made by hand, models often take longer to make than the real thing. It used to annoy me - taking all that time - but sometimes I got a perverse satisfaction from making a thing look real - like the parking meter I made one time when we couldn't get a real one out to where the horse was.

Before the kids show up, most people at the salon are adults with more men than women; and some geeky older kids. There are airplanes, boats, cars, trains of course, and some figurines - and a sub-part of the show is devoted to games - mostly board games.

This year's big 'new thing' is superglue. There are several stands for it; as if all modelers need superglue this year. I forget what last year's big 'new thing' was - except that there's a different one every year.

I find this out by skimming through the tools and model-making machines part first. A couple of years ago I came across the guys who make sub-miniature video cameras, and the model train guys had them installed in theirphoto: model circus engines so you could see the model's tracks from the model train driver's viewpoint.

A model circus, with a bar, spectators, elephants and lions, and trapeze artists.

Now, with the radio-controlled airplanes and helicopters, these mini-video cameras are installed in them too, and this little company that made them had half its catalogue declared a military secret.

There used to be more computer stuff too. Like computers running 3-D programs that drove auto-modelling machines, for making rough molds. I don't see any of these this year; just the normal smaller lathes and tiny, fine-work tools.

There are also a handful of stands that are like hardware stores for miniature nuts and bolts. Everything seems to cost at least 25 francs; mini-screws in a plastic bag that has a label bigger than the contents.

Basically, there seem to be two types of models - ones that work and ones that are just for display. Some of the working ones are stripped down, for working - for flying, sailing or running around racetracks. But others are detail-true, right down to their searchlights, generators and steam-engines.

With the models just for display - many of which are in competition for awards - there seems to be a growing category, where the model is part of a realistic little scene.

A good number of these 'scenes' involve WWII for some reason. Some people have picked American tanks, which seem to have just punched out a German tank, and soldiers are wandering around looking at the damage.

So there are wrecked houses and landscapes. One German tank is half-sunk in a little fake lake. But fully half of these grisly little tableaux feature German tanks as the heros. There is even one Russian tank, dressed up in North Vietnamese colors.

I see a paint display for painting tanks. To make them look like they've been in action, with rusty tracks, covered with grease and grime and battlefield mud. Nobody wants to do shiny, parade-ground tanks.

The model train layouts probably started this off, with all their hills, trees, cars, tiny people, bridges and little towns. You can tell the difference between the ready-mades and the hand-made ones too.

Most of these trains, in every scale there is, seem to have model-salon layouts. They are made so as manyphoto: figurine people as possible can see the trains running. Only a few of the layouts are shown with full decor, but the few that are have more detail than I think I've seen before.

Judging from the signs, many of these are club operations - model railroaders of Rambouillet or Val-d'Oise for example. Some of the signs say they have museums, or permanent displays - for paying visitors. Others are recruiting new members.

A figurine - for what? Not a gnome, not really a model - but part of a trend to modelize everything, without it being 'art.'

This is also the kind of show where the French armed forces are recruiting. Conscription is a dead duck in France now, so the army, navy and air force are on the lookout for new troops. "Mademoiselle," the super-neat military type says, "Try out our tank!"

Navy guys make ships in bottles - or did - because today they are showing the new nuclear carrier, the Charles De Gaulle. Twice in fact. Meanwhile, over on the other side of the hall, the army has a full-sized real airplane for the kids to sit it.

The air force is short of ideas and is showing last year's model planes. They do have big model planes, but not quite as big as the army's real thing.

Just in case I ever get interested, I pick up a brochure from the 501/503 combat tank regiment; that says the minimum contract is three years. After four months, you can get 'a variety' of driver's licenses. The implication is for very big tanks.

This regiment started out on 13. May 1918 and later rode into Paris in 1944 with the French 2nd Division, led by General Leclerc - right past where I live now.

I always turn to look at the working models just as their session finishes. I see no moving racing cars, and I only see flying things from a distance. Well, okay, I saw the trains - even the stream trains that the kids - and adults - ride on.

I see the sail boats sailing too, for the first time in five years. The wind machines are turned on and the boats are sailing around - do they have radio-controlled rudders or do they do their sailing by themselves?

There is - supposedly, because I don't see it - a radio-controlled duck. This goes together with the airplane with wings that flap. Another thing I don't see - where are these things hidden? - is a sea-going, powered, high-heeled shoe.

The 'most realistic' model is supposed to be on a train layout and the realism is attributed to model cows watching the trains pass. Are they really watching? Do they ever?

The 'cutest' thing is supposed to be a 'model' of video-game and lately of TV commercial fame, Laura Croft. A couple of years ago she did pretty well on TV selling Spanish SEATs, by locking up dumb dudes inside cars without air conditioning.

The oddest thing I do see is a model train tableau in two parts. Part one shows some train guys by the engine, looking glum because their train seems to have lost the coal-hauling concession.

Part two shows the caboose, seemingly forgotten in the wilds, with the cook or some geezer standing on the rear platform, surveying a quartet of Indian maidens in their native-costume swim suits, all of them looking much more realistic and fun-loving than Barbie.

So, you see, it is not enough to simply build a model Heinkel bomber. Now you have to buildphoto: model race car demo a model London too, and put in the model bombs falling on it, and the model fire department putting out the model fires, while the model Spitfires try to shoot the models bombers down.

Good old boys show kids how to drive model racing cars - through the infield if necessary.

I don't know if the people who do this are aware that there are virtual reality computer programs for doing the same thing; such as what appears to be Microsoft's stand for learning how to fly an airplane.

Whole scenes surrounding models is an interesting trend because it goes beyond the object to its environment. But the unemployed coal train business seems to take it beyond a set-piece 'scene' into the realm of story-telling, into the area of imagination.

The dejected train guys; where's their next paycheck coming from? The cook in the caboose - after a swim with the Indian maidens, are they going to cook up a turkey for a picnic together?

On the way out of the salon, I watch a varied assortment of players looking at checker boards - not at all fazed by the attention that the Côte d'Azur-version of 'Monopoly' is getting on the stand behind them.

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