After two years of studying French and Spanish, the time had come to start planning my year abroad. I applied to teach English for the British Council in the Academy of Rouen and eventually learnt that I’d successfully made it onto the programme and had been posted to Le Havre.
However, following my initial relief that I was moving to a respectably sized town and not a tiny village in the middle of nowhere, heard conflicting accounts of the place. As it is one of the country’s biggest ferry ports, many people I know have driven through the town and described it as being uniformly grey and grim. A lot of my French friends said the same thing, which was more worrying.
Yet at the same time, tourist guides assured me that the city was in fact a UNESCO World Heritage Site. When I looked online, I started to wonder if UNESCO ever awarded heritage status out of pity; I spent about 20 minutes trying to adjust the contrast on my computer screen before finally accepting that the city was actually that grey.
Le Havre isn’t particularly exotic or far-flung, with the nearest big city after Rouen being Portsmouth, but this did mean I was was able to take a ferry directly into the town. The distance is not too far, but the night crossing isdeliberately slowed to eight hours so passengers can arrive well-rested and refreshed at eight in the morning French time.
Sleepless and tired, I watched the town appear before me and realised that UNESCO was right after all. It was true that, as far as the eye could see, the buildings were all square, sombre, and made of concrete; but somehow, instead of looking bleak, they caught the morning sun and gave off a strange golden glow.
I could see why some people would write it off as an eyesore, especially in poor weather, but in the late September light it had an austere charm. What I was looking at was the downtown ‘Perret’ quarter, named after the architect Auguste Perret who rebuilt this city in his own unique style after it was substantially bombed in the Second World War.
I had read that this had happened, but it was not until a few days after my arrival that I learnt it was the British who bombed Le Havre, something for which many older generations in Le Havre still resent us for.
I discovered this British impact on Le Havre when I was told the history of the town by Marcel, a teacher from the school where I would be working. He told me the town fell to German forces early in the war and, although the Nazis had a presence here, it was in no way significant enough to justify the extent of the Allies’ bombing campaign.
According to him, the destruction was financially motivated. Although the French were allies of the British in the war, France was one of our main economic rivals during peacetime and, as Le Havre was one of their busiest and most lucrative ports, the British bombed it heavily. The destruction was so extensive that from the train station, you could see all the way to the beach two kilometres away.
Marcel also told me that the new city was built directly onto the rubble, two metres higher than the old one. We lapsed into silence. I didn’t know whether I should apologise or not. It seemed like the British thing to do, so I did.