Thursday, September 11, 2014
meeting le havre
To blog is to bend time.
I am currently sitting in an internet cafe looking across Le Havre's harbor. My today is your tomorrow. By the time you read this essay, the day that is currently mine -- sun on the harbor, seagulls in the air, all back-dropped by this ancient city that now wears an architectural face of the 1950s and 1960s, it will be gone. And so will I.
If you come to Le Havre for its historic buildings, you are as misinformed as Rick, in his search for the waters, in Casablanca. The reason? Well, we talked about it yesterday. (Yours, not mine. See how time keeps bending?)
During the Second World War, the Germans occupied and fortified this portion of France. First, as a launching point to invade Britain; then, as a means to avoid the British doing what they had intended to do to the British.
Much of Normandy was bombed, if not back to the Stone Age, at least back to the Merovingians. Because of the harbor that gives Le Havre its name, almost all of the city, which was once renowned for its architectural beauty, was reduced to non-restorable rubble.
The one exception was the Notre-Dame cathedral. It was badly damaged, but it managed to survive. One stained-glass window still bears the blast shards of shrapnel.
To tell the truth, I was a bit underwhelmed by the cathedral's odd combination of Gothic and Classical elements. I suspect it was never ranked amongst the beauties of Europe.
But its beauty is not its story. The fact that enough of it survived to be restored is symbolic of Le Havre and France. What was in ruins managed to scratch its way up the greasy pole to be a working nation-state.
One church that was destroyed was the church of St. Joseph. Rather than try to build a faded copy of what it once was, the parish decided to build something entirely different. A new church in a new style for a modern era.
Auguste Perret, one of the pioneers of the reinforced concrete movement and the re-builder of Le Havre, designed a church whose tower can be seen from almost everywhere in the city. There is no pretense at romantic beauty. The building is bulky, but dappled with color.
Take a look at its tower.
You might mistake it for a missile silo. (Ken claims it looks like a military bunker built upside down.) But then there are all those colors filtered through small panes of stained glass.
Where you can find beauty is at the Andre Malraux Museum of Fine Arts. The museum houses a large collection of Raoul Dufy's work along with pieces by Eugene Boudin, Pissaro, and Monet.
That shot is all I have. It was a long day, and art managed to slip to the end of the queue.
But not so low as to eliminate a stop for lunch. The cruise ship has served up some of the best dinners I have tasted -- whether on land or at sea. The breakfasts and lunches have been incentive to seek sustenance elsewhere.
So, we did. At an unassuming little restaurant named Chengmai. My first impression was to give it a miss. The menu offered up Chinese, Japanese, and Thai food -- a combination that any restauranteur would find difficult to pull off. The sign advertising "free wifi" and the absence of any other customers simply underlined my concern.
But we stuck it out. And I am glad we did. I had a bowl of Duck Pat Pet, which the Vietnamese owner described as his specialty and personal favorite, that was unquestionably the best I have ever tasted. Who would have thought?
Sated, we headed back to the ship.
Our story does not end here, though. On Tuesday, we had a long conversation with our guide about the rise of anti-American parties of the right across Europe. Most of them are parties of tradition. And most of those traditions are sound.
What bothers many Americans is that some darker traditions are raising their heads. Xenophobia. Antisemitism. Insularism.
One of the leading parties, of course, is the National Front, led by the founder's daughter, Marine Le Pen. Her party's success in the recent European parliamentary elections was a wake-up call that the Eurocratic establishment is ignoring. I suspect, to their cost.
I liked this shot, though. It raised the question for me whether Marine reflects the future of France -- or whether her view is merely an illusion.
But Mexpatriate is on vacation, and we have no say over what the Europeans do. No matter how disturbing.
Instead, we will be off to La Rochelle (not the home of Rob, Laura, and Richie) to review a bit of Huguenot history. That is, after we spend a relaxing day at sea.