Le Havre: The City You Have to Conjugate

It’s true! While “Le Havre” may be the city’s name, things from the city are things “du Havre,” and journeys to the place are trips “au Havre.” Not the easiest place to start our French travels, linguistically speaking.

I would call Le Havre “the newest old city in Europe,” because its center was almost completely destroyed, by retreating Nazis, in 1944 and rebuilt, primarily by Auguste Perret, a so-called “pioneer of reinforced concrete,” after the end of the war. But to do so would be to ignore the 20th century history of my beloved Berlin, which was not only decimated and recreated during and after the war, but was also torn apart and welded back together in 1961 and 1989. So I’ll instead say that Le Havre was utterly transformed, to a degree I’d never before seen, by deliberate wartime destruction. Fascinatingly, the city center of Le Havre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, precisely because of the unified Modernist concrete texture of the reconstruction. Here’s a display and map of “Operation Tabula Rasa,” the intentional destruction of the city:

Because of all the concrete, and, no doubt, because of the opportunity to Build New Things, Le Havre became quite the destination for midcentury architects. Here’s a striking theater space designed by Oscar Niemeyer (of Brasília and UN Headquarters fame) which is known affectionately as the Volcano, though we preferred to call it the Yogurt Cup:

We settled into our Airbnb, venturing forth for some Turkish food, which has become an international comfort food for us in ways other folks might tap mac and cheese, or hamburgers. And why not? It’s cheap, it’s tasty, it’s prepared right in front of you, and it’s totally ubiquitous in all but the tiniest European cities. From there we progressed to our afternoon activity: attending a group-stage game in the 2019 Women’s World Cup!

Yes, France is playing host this year to the FIFA Women’s World Cup, in which the home French team has high hopes of dethroning the defending American champions to equal the success of the men’s team last year. Sara formerly played a good deal of soccer, and I’ve always been partial to the beautiful game, and women’s soccer is much less prone to flopping and unsportspersonlike theatrics, so it was great fortune that our arrival in France followed fast on the start of the tournament.

In return for playing an altogether more principled game, women soccer players are paid woefully less than their male counterparts. Although we’re arguably well within a golden age of women’s soccer, even many highly competitive women’s national soccer teams are composed of unpaid volunteers. (The Norwegian goalkeeper has a day job as a software engineer.) Ticket sales are concomitantly lower, and while all the games involving France or the USA sold out far in advance of the tournament, we were able to buy tickets to the China-Spain group-stage game, just a few days beforehand, for 9 euros apiece.

Like most folks who are paying attention to this sort of thing, I regard FIFA as an organization of more or less unalloyed criminal malfeasance and misanthropy. Nevertheless, I must concede I was impressed with the experience of getting to the game, which began with a friendly welcome from an English-language staffer and continued with a frequent, free bus shuttle to the Stade Océane a couple miles east of town.

And continuing the theme of being treated right by tentacular corporations, no sooner had Sara and I entered the stadium than we were approached by some polylingual Visa employees, offering us a backstage tour of the stadium. Our curiosity got the better of our skepticism and we were amply rewarded: the tour turned out to include walking onto the pitch itself via the players’ tunnel (quite the frisson – a French word!), then spectating the teams’ warm-ups from right beside the field. Very cool.

We also got to meet Ettie, the official mascot of the 2019 Women’s World Cup; she is apparently the daughter of the mascot of the French-hosted 1998 Men’s World Cup. I didn’t realize that mascots had lineages, but I guess everything is about ancestry and tradition in old France.

In the end the game was a scoreless tie, but it was quite exciting nonetheless: Spain, though favored to win and though able to easily and repeatedly penetrate China’s porous defensive line, couldn’t conjure up any attacks nasty enough to get past Peng Shimeng, the heroic Chinese keeper. China, meanwhile, clearly had no strategy in place to actually win the game, short of gross Spanish incompetence, and was doubtless grateful for the tie.

I spent much of the next day at La Roue Libre, a great community bike workshop felicitously located just two blocks from our Airbnb. This was a chance to install our new chains and cassettes, replace all my cables, tighten up various bolts and screws around my crankset, and finally straighten out Sara’s woeful front fender line. In the evening we enjoyed a lovely home-cooked meal and fell asleep thinking about graceful goal kicks and the adventures ahead.

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