In the city of Le Havre, time is frozen. Frozen where, exactly? You’ll see.
When Nicole and I got off of our train and thudded with our backpacks into a city center full of wide roads and concrete buildings, the 36 hours we were planning to spend there started to stretch into a more than we thought was possible.
I am not going to lie and tell you I have been to a lot of places in France. The list is short: Paris. Its suburbs. Rouen. Limoges. And, oh yeah, Versailles (if that counts). Despite my embarrassingly few wanderings in France, I stepped into this city with the expectation that it would have features of the others: mainly, that it would be old, with a downtown full of buildings dating back to the middle ages and streets that are impossibly small even for the impossibly small cars people drive here.
But I was wrong. As Nicole and I walked up a big boulevard in search of our Airbnb, we were shocked at how modern this city was.
The buildings in the city center were mostly a light brown-gray concrete with checkerboard windows and rigid concrete decals. Block after oddly square block (in other cities, the “blocks” are amorphous forms that lead you in deceptive directions. Many are triangle. Some are unnamable shapes), I could not help but think I had walked into a town designed when my high school was built (early 1960s) or possibly at the same time that Ralph Rapson was laying the blueprints for Rarig Center, the huge brutalist monstrosity that was my university theatre building in Minneapolis.
Nothing around us was old, or exceptionally pretty, according to the standards for “pretty” we have adapted to here. Another thing that was not pretty: The message from our one-night landlord. We would not be able to “check in” to our room for another eight hours. It looked like our packs would have to stay on our backs for the majority of our explorations.
We followed white signs past the Hôtel de Ville, a boxy clock-towered structure behind an expansive brick plaza, leading us to the docks. Cruise ships and industrial fishing buildings obstructed our sea view. This port city in Haute Normandie attracts many European cruisers, we later learned. We vainly searched for beauty under the gray clouds, each of us wondering in the back of our heads why we chose this city in Northern France to backpack around in for a day.
Apprendre par cœur
We were hungry. We stepped into a tea house/restaurant and asked the man there if the place was « ouvert » . I pronounced the T a bit too much and he corrected me, saying I had used the feminine form of the word. He then said no, the place was not serving food until later.
We followed an oceanside path past the harbor, spotting the Office du Tourisme across the street. I asked the woman behind the counter if she had any ideas of places where we could leave our bags for a few hours. She said, desolée, but with the way security is in France right now, no one was going to let us do that. Even the train station had gotten rid of its lockers.
We ambled downtown again and ended back up at the tea house with our new French professor. The man came up to us as we shrugged off our packs, saying, « vous devriez avoir faim, » you have got to be hungry now. He took our order and I explained where we were from and that we were in the process of learning French. “It’s difficult at times,” I said. “Sometimes I mess up on the masculine and feminine forms of words, as you saw.” He nodded. « Ben, oui, mais il faut apprendre le masculin et le feminin par cœur ! » he said. “Oh yes, but you must learn feminine and masculin by heart!”
We ate soup and quiche, in no hurry, sitting and talking for an extra hour. When we went up to the counter, I explained to the man that we were visiting for one night to see more of France. I casually mentioned how our Airbnb landlord was working until six and would not let us leave our bags. “Well, you can leave them here,” he said. We thanked him for his kindness and dropped our packs next to plates of brownies in the corner. We probably should have thanked him for his refusal to sugarcoat his reaction to our French skills, too.
Brutalism with a past
Much lighter on our feet now, we took off through the heart of the city to get to know it a little better. We passed les halles centrales, a huge central market building with a wavy glass roof and fruit stalls and a Super U Express grocery store inside. Continuing down the grid, we came to a tall church whose steeple we had noticed throughout the day.
Église Saint-Joseph was imposing, but not for the normal reasons. It was alarmingly new, with a huge steeple rising up in straight lines and coming to a jagged, calculated point. The structure was more Lego than Medieval. We went inside to find a circular pulpit with squares of color from stained glass spilling in from high concrete beams.
“It’s Brutalist,” we realized, naming the style of architecture we knew mostly for its name (and me from my time spent in Rarig). The unforgiving edges and unfinished concrete were more pronounced here in the church, but it became clear that the entire city held traces of this style.
We crossed through the back of the church in the darkness, coming to a display board that told the story of why the city was the way it was, connecting hints that had been dropped for us all that morning.
Used as a fuel port for the British army during World War II, Le Havre was heavily bombed by German forces, leaving more than 10,000 buildings in ruins. Starting in 1945, Belgian architect Auguste Perret led the reconstruction of the city’s center into a coherent, modern urban hub. Perret’s vision for the city prioritized helping its inhabitants live their lives comfortably and efficiently in their new homes.
Later, our landlord would tell us that the streets of Le Havre were designed with New York City in mind. Our response was we had not even realized it, but it was easy to see — the straight gridded streets had such an American effects that we did not even notice them.
With a new appreciation for the rebuilt city, we set off on smaller streets. The sun had finally come out and the roads sloped gently upward. We crossed through a garden and found a quiet neighborhood with buildings that seemed untouched by the war and reminiscent of others we had seen in France — narrow and colorful with petite windows and wooden doors. Almost all of them seeming to lean a little to the left or a little to the right — their ages taking a toll on their spines.
Then we found the beach. Industrial ship yards far behind us, the Plage du Havre was a vast span of sun-touched rocks giving way to a stripe of sand and then the water. We clambered over the stones, me recalling skiing as we scaled a rocky slope. We touched and tasted the water. It had been a long time since either of us had seen the ocean. That was why we came here.
And so commenced the usual would-be deep ocean talks that landlocked people with nowhere pressing to go have when they find themselves on a beach: “Do you ever think about how long it took for these rocks to get here to shore?” I ask Nicole. She counters: “Do you ever think about how long it took to make these rocks?”
When you are like me, finding people to travel with is difficult because you are easily annoyed by humans and are quick to spot their flaws. (You’re a writer. How can you help it?) But spending the day with Nicole — my friend who until now has been hiding in a group of American girls I have passably gotten along with — helped me discover that she shared a lot of those qualities. It turns out we get along really well, even when we would otherwise be screaming to be alone.
We turned away from the water and stumbled back over the rocks to a boardwalk. People walked along with their families and dogs. Children and daring young adults scaled the blue graffiti walls of a skate park. In an enclosed basketball court, guys played soccer, their movements effortless. The people here have known this sport from birth.
We walked on a concrete pier jutting out over the waves, the sea on one side and the harbor on the other. Little sailboats appear in flocks on both sides. Nicole pointed out the name for the boats: Optis. (After a Wikipedia search, I learned that that’s short for Optimist.) Barely the size of a bath tub, they are the sailboats people learn on. I found out my friend captained the sailing team in high school back in Washington, D.C. Walking back along the pier toward land, we talked about things we did in high school that we do not do anymore.
Six o’clock was nearing. We went to a flower shop and chose a pail of fiery orange roses for our generous tea house man. We set them on his counter after he told us, “don’t worry, I remember you from earlier.” I tried to explain that we chose the flowers because they sort of matched the warm walls of his café. “Sort of,” he said, still refusing to sugarcoat. We thanked him and grabbed our bags, taking them to a concrete entryway across the street where we waited for our long-awaited Airbnb host, Marion.
Marion was late. Marion was getting on our nerves. We were already thinking about the negative reviews we would write about Marion and her refusal to let us get into this place until dark. But then Marion appeared, and all our annoyances vanished.
She was a French hipster goddess, beautiful brown glasses perched on her pretty face underneath a blonde ponytail, blending in perfectly with the mod courtyard behind her. She greeted us and let us in. “Is French OK?” she asked us just to be sure. “I can speak English, but very badly. In Le Havre, we have a saying: parler français comme une vache espagnole. Speak English like a Spanish cow. I think it’s a Normand expression.”
We squeezed into a tiny elevator (smaller than the ones in Paris, somehow, despite its more recent origins). Then Marion let us into the apartment we would be staying in for the night, and suddenly we were immensely thankful to have come to Le Havre.
The place was fit for a hipster goddess like our host, so to us earthlings it was impossibly beautiful. Colorful furniture and expertly-chosen decorations lined the immaculate white walls. Huge windows opened onto a panoramic view of the city; boxy clock tower of the Hôtel de Ville and St. Joseph’s building-block steeple right in view. In her spotless kitchen, pastel utensils hung like they would in an Ikea catalogue. The place was spotless.
We said goodbye to Marion and gazed out on the darkening city. Seeing it from up high, warm spotlights accentuating the crisp buildings and their many rectangles, we started to appreciate it even more. Just as this apartment was exactly what we needed without even knowing it — a new and comfortable place perfect for two millennial whitegurls — this city had been a needed, if unexpected, place for its inhabitants to call home when it was rebuilt.
That night, we ate French food a few blocks away. We talked about history. Nicole (who has a bachelor’s in history and an master’s in art history) told me there is a theory that historical events happen in peaks and jolts, rather than just one gradual build-up over time. Walking back through the calm, New York-like streets, we talked about how our time here had moved in peaks, slowing and speeding up in a way that challenges our steady, measure for measure notion of time. When we first came to Paris, time moved slowly. Everything was new and we were learning how to live here. But now, time is going fast, because not so much is new, and we do not notice the days slipping by.
But that day, with so much packed into 12 hours alone, time had slowed down again. And we suddenly knew a story we otherwise would not have. We would be going back to Paris tomorrow, where time would inevitably speed up again. Taking care of Parisian kids, seeing friends, trying to figure out what to do in the future … it would undoubtedly consume our minds and take the hours away without us noticing.
“But I think there is hope for the future,” I said. Because one day has showed us how much we can learn, and how time can be stretched. Just think of what having kids can do to that, we wondered aloud. Because when you are an au pair, you question more than ever whether you will one day have them.
Luckily, for now, that question is all hypothetical. But the good night’s sleep we were about to have in that beautiful apartment was not.