In Saint-Denis, two teachers renovate a wagon in a third place

In Saint-Denis, two teachers renovate a wagon in a third place

The school year is coming to an end but the educational projects are still alive. On a wide sidewalk in the town of Saint-Denis (Seine-Saint-Denis), a curious tableau vivant seizes passers-by: a red wagon with, on the port side, on an exterior platform, a chef behind his stoves and, on the interior, passengers seated in a festive atmosphere. They are the first passengers in a sixty-year-old dining car heading for its new life. Legacy of the Capitol, the first train in France to reach a speed of 200 km/h, which linked Paris to Toulouse from 1967 to 1991, this machine ran aground thirty years ago at the foot of the Lycée Paul-Éluard, the largest in the city. The Dionysian Fanny Capel has been teaching French for twelve years in this establishment of 2,000 students. With her next-door neighbor, Gaëlle Leroux, a French teacher, also in Deuil-la-Barre (Val-d’Oise), the teacher is behind this dinner prepared and served by students from the hotel school. Rabelais de Dugny (Seine-Saint-Denis). The two teachers have succeeded in the bet they had set themselves: to make this railway wreck a third place that marries culture and cuisine, associates teachers and students and brings together the inhabitants.

In tribute to Samuel Paty

The wagon disembarked from Périgueux (Dordogne) in 1991, aboard a tank carrier. Two cranes drop it off on Avenue Jean-Moulin. For fourteen years, the cabin served as a restaurant as part of a reintegration program, then the vehicle sank into oblivion after its closure in 2006. It is even said to be “haunted”. Until the assassination of Samuel Paty on October 16, 2020, unexpectedly put him out of his misery. Gaëlle and Fanny, stunned by the fate of their colleague, ask themselves a thousand questions: “Has their job become so dangerous? How to transmit in such a climate of violence, when the links between teachers and parents of students are at this broken point?” They then think back to the reading and film club that Fanny had wanted to set up in the car for years. “We thought we were ‘poor'” says Gaëlle. Her colleague Fanny sees in it an illustration of the Voltairian adage “let’s cultivate our garden”: “Let’s act on what we can have control over without letting ourselves be discouraged by the march of the world towards the abyss.”

The wagon, sold for a symbolic euro, breathes the 1960s: the first air-conditioned rolling cab, its 66 m2 bathed in the Formica decades, with its crank Venetian blinds, its hat racks… But this picturesque decor does not manage to hide the ravages of time. It took around 800,000 euros to restore it. “We embarked on a crazy thing”, admit the two teachers, who very quickly went on the hunt for subsidies to start the emergency works and ensure a first opening to the public. “We couldn’t wait: the wagon was in a catastrophic state.” Their professional and private lives are then supplemented by technical-legal meetings with the region, the city, the heritage management of the SNCF, site meetings. Their project appeals: if the official opening is only scheduled for 2024 and the works are far from being finalized, from the Heritage Days 2022, the first visitors are welcomed aboard a wagon labeled “Heritage of the Island -of France”.

Students play the game

Last May, wearing an SNCF cap, the two teachers looked exhausted. But they were also delighted that the students had played the game so much. That day, students from the fashion design and carpentry sectors of the neighboring Frédéric-Bartholdi vocational school had exhibited their clothing creations and their wooden structures. Moving photos taken from work carried out with the departmental archives and students of Paul-Éluard on the theme of memory, accompanied the whole. “Participating in the project amuses me, I have always seen this train, because I live opposite”, testifies Fatiha, 17 years old. This first year student recorded with about twenty of her classmates railway stories by great French authors. An amazing sound work released a few weeks ago. The passenger compartment had been covered with a work by Dionysian graffiti artist Marko 93, while local jazzman Emmanuel Bex made the public swing. Fanny smiles: “People stop, watch. There is joy. It was worth the cost.”

Recipes for success

  • A common passion. Gaëlle and Fanny have the notion of public service in their skin. This project would never have been possible without their shared passion for the profession and transmission.
  • Varied entertainment. The project leaders are not slowed down in the choice of animations. The program is intended to match Saint-Denis, the last resting place of the kings and queens of France and a very culturally rich city.
  • The help of an architect. An architect studied the feasibility of the project, then carried out the basic work: reconnecting the water and electricity as well as installing an alarm and barricading the doors.

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