Thursday, October 14, 2010

Antoine Godard: Sept. 6, 1967 - Oct. 11, 2010

I wept yesterday when I received the email from Valentin Godard, the 17-year-old son of my friends Antoine and Nathalie. Valentin’s words? “My father past this night.” It took me just an instant to figure out what he meant—and still, I didn’t believe it. The Godards had been in Barcelona when strong, beautiful Antoine suffered a fatal heart attack. He was 43.

I’ve known Antoine since before I moved to St. Remy. In fact, he was my very first friend in France.

In 1996, I was living in New York and I signed up to take a photo class in Provence. It was a two-week trip, with shooting and touring during the day and darkroom work at night. Our group came from all over the U.S. and ranged in age from 16 to 70-ish. We had a fabulous time. Our lead instructor was Craig Stevens, a professor at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia. Craig took a group to Provence every summer and, for a number of years, had hired Antoine to assist.

Born in Corbeil Essonnes, near Paris, Antoine was living in Marseille with Nathalie and their two boys. Nathalie joined our group for a few meals (with baby Simon, now 15) and we all fell crazy in love with them too.

A talented photographer and passionate teacher, Antoine worked so hard those two weeks, sharing his beloved Provence with us. I can only imagine how tired he was at the end of every day, after solving a thousand problems, answering a million questions, translating, navigating--and doing everything he could to make our trip rewarding and fun.

Craig remembers: “One morning at the hotel, the croissants were quite stale and probably had been frozen. Antoine rose in disgust and said ‘Theez croissants sont insupportable!’ He left the hotel, went into town and returned with the most beautiful flaky croissants you can imagine. He so shamed the hotel owner that the croissants were never less than wonderful after that.  I also remember one student was having a particularly bad day. It turned Midnight and Antoine uttered: ‘She was having zee bad day but it is now tomorrow so she should be ok!’”

After class ended, Antoine, Nathalie and I stayed in touch.  And then, after years of helping Craig set up makeshift darkrooms in old hotel caves, Antoine hit on an idea. Why not create a hotel specifically for photographers and other artsy types? The hotel would welcome those who brought their own students to St. Remy and host workshops of its own.  It would have a full darkroom for processing and printing, which would be open to guests and the public as well.  It would have gallery and performance space, museum-quality prints on the walls, interesting events, live music.

 So Ant and Nat left their lives in Marseille and settled in St. Remy, where they bought a crumbling 100-year-old building and hired Nat’s architect brother to do the renovation.  

The look of the hotel would be modern in a village where nothing was modern. And of course everyone said they were nuts.

The Godards opened phase one of Hotel Les Ateliers de l’Image in June 1998 and it turned out “everyone” was wrong, of course. It quickly became the inn of choice for art and antique dealers, film industry types, journalists and photographers, architects and musicians—anyone who simply loved the quiet joys of Provence. There was a stage, a piano and a large screen, where movies would be shown in the evening. It was much more than a hotel and that’s exactly what the Godards envisioned.  

I was there the week the hotel opened. I remember frantic last-minute runs to IKEA for wine glasses, votives, wall hooks and light bulbs.  I remember perching high on a ladder, scraping price tags and installation info off brand-new skylights. I remember the little passageway to Café Varietes, which provided food before the hotel had its own restaurant.

I remember Antoine and Nathalie’s excitement and exhaustion as they pulled a million tiny pieces together, day after day after day.

Carol Stroll and I met in photo class and she was there opening week as well.  I called her tonight in Massachusetts and asked what she remembers from that time.

“The hotel had been opened for just a few days,” Carol recalls. “A few of us were hanging around reception when a man in his 30's arrived and spoke rapidly in French to Antoine. ‘Bien sûr!’ replied Antoine, grinning with enthusiasm. The man ran out, returning a few minutes later with a lovely young woman. Antoine took them to their room and came down, still grinning. He was proud and happy because, he said, ‘There are lovers in the hotel!’" 

Shortly after Les Ateliers opened I decided to rent a house and move to St. Remy…and the Godards were wonderful.  They let me swim, work in the darkroom, lurk around with my book…whatever. I remember lingering poolside well into the evening, content just to hear the cigalles chirping and smell the jasmine and honeysuckle. Truth is, I was desperately lonely that first year I lived in Provence. But there was always something cool happening at the hotel and the Godards always welcomed me.

Later, Antoine and Nathalie took over the adjacent Grand Hotel de Provence, renovated it completely and joined the two properties with a spectacular garden. They added a second pool, a fine-dining restaurant, a sushi bar, library, conference room and more. Today, the four-star Les Ateliers is one of the top hotels in town, a testament to Antoine’s vision and tenacity. But also to Nathalie’s love for her husband and willingness to work with him towards his dream.

Antoine’s energy and enthusiasm were boundless. Whether it was Les Ateliers—or any of the projects that came before or after--he attacked it full on. He was burning with creative energy; he loved art, architecture, music, travel, cooking, reading, the theater, the outdoors and learning of any kind. Antoine had a light in his eyes, an infectious smile, an amazing laugh and a capacity for deep emotion. But his goal of being a great husband and father superseded all the others.  Anyone who knew him could see that was his most-cherished role of all.

A few years ago, Antoine and Nathalie decided they were ready for a new life. So with heavy hearts—and a great party—they sold the hotel, bid farewell to St. Remy and took off for Narbonne, where they bought an old peniche (hotel barge) on the Canal du Midi. Nathalie wanted to study nursing; Antoine psychology. And once again, they had pulled it off.  Nat was working as a nurse, Ant was doing counseling and they had started HotelQueJaime.com, a booking engine for boutique hotels.  The last time I heard from him, on October 4th, everyone was busy and good and they were heading for Barcelona.

And then this.

Shortly after Valentin’s message yesterday, Nathalie sent me one of her own.  “We were so happy together,” she wrote.

And then she added a line that I know I’ll remember forever:  “Antoine made the life so beautiful.”

Rest in peace, my amazing friend. My corner of Provence is a better place because of you. 

24 comments:

  1. I worked with Antoine and Nathalie at the hotel for seven years, from 1998 till 2005. Antoine, you always were such an artist and an amazing person. You always wanted to surprise us and “do something different”. This last “surprise” was not a good one. I can't believe you aren't with us any longer but you will always be in my heart with me.

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  2. I never met Antoine but I was touched beyond words. He accomplished so much for someone so young...

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  3. I am shocked to hear such sad news. I remember his and Nathalie's warm hospitality and he will be greatly missed by all who knew and loved him. My condolences to all of his family and friends. A very sad day for them. May they know that he accomplished a lot and shared his joie de vivre with so many people from all over the world. Nathana Josephs NYC

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  4. I wish I'd known him. Thank-you for this beautiful tribute, Julie.

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  5. Julie: Thank you for sharing with us, your dear friend Antoine.
    He was such a brilliant, creative light. It's difficult news always, when we hear of one so young and vibrant, moving on to the next part of his journey. But look at all the beauty he created while he was here! And as you say, the most important creations of all--the enduring love he had for his wife and son. Please accept my condolences on his behalf.

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  6. My warmest condolences. He seemed a wonderful person. Remember how lucky you were having him as a friend...

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  7. How tragic~ a wonderful man with so much enthusiasm for life. You were priviledged to have known him.
    ~Dianne~

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  8. Oh Julie what a sad day for you! I know the hotel but had no idea of your close connection to its brilliant founders. Truly a light has gone out for his family and friends. Your tribute is very moving.

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  9. I don't know your friends Antoine and Nathalie, I don't even know you, yet your tribute brought tears to my eyes too. Thank you for sharing your love for your friends. You added a very human touch to this often cold internet experience. Merci.

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  10. Oh Julie, what a beautiful tribute. I was a young, emerging artist when I first met the Godards. They saw and understood my vision ... bought many of my images and gave me a show. I was an artist in residence and kept returning because the Godards gave me so much more than hope in my career. They gave me a piece of their heart. . . and now a small piece is forever broken. I have no doubt that Antoine's spirit will live on in his sons. I love you and will miss you Antoine!

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  11. I am so sorry Julie.....what a beautiful tribute to this wonderful man. How lucky you were to call him your friend, xv.

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  12. I'm so sorry, J. What a sad, sad day. I did not know Antoine (of course) but after reading your post I feel like I did. Your writing is the kind of tribute any of us would hope for.

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  13. Dear Julie...I heard from Antoine last week and I too cried when Craig wrote. In all the years I worked with Antoine through the workshops, there was never a problem he could not or did not solve. His creativity was as endless as his love for life and his family. He made photography special in St Remy because he was so special. With his passing with are reminded "Cherish the moments, they may never come again". What a beautiful soul. Thank you for this tribute for Antoine, Nathalie and his children.

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  14. Julie, I remember staying at Antoine and Natalie's new photography hotel in St. Remy with you (Hi to Phillippe who was there!). It was beautiful, sunny and full of Antoine's warmth, love, joy, generosity and creativity. His family was all part of it. The news was so very, very sad. My condolences to his loved ones and to you on the loss of such a dear friend. He is an inspiration and will remain in all of our hearts as a reminder to live fully and with great love. Relish life.
    Susan J. Gluck, NYC

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  15. i don't know this lovely man, but it still made me cry.
    all my warmest sympathy to the family.
    love
    irina brook

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  16. I loved the Atelier des images and the wonderful spirit full of peace and beauty Antoine (and Nathalie) put in it.
    He was such a good person...

    RIP, Antoine

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  17. Julie, what a wonderful eulogy for your friend.
    I remember some years ago scouting out for a hotel to stay at in St Rémy, and "Hotel Les Ateliers de l’Image" was the one I had my eye on. We ended up staying in Aix after all, but the "Les Ateliers" had caught my eye; it looked smashing.
    Take care,
    Michael

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  18. Dear Julie,
    Please give our thoughts and prayers to Nathalie and to Antoine's two children. He sounds like a wonderful being who will be missed.I love the fact that they seemed to follow their hearts and it is obvious that they caught you up in their love and generosity...
    Maryanne xo

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  19. Your words so softly spoken instill such a great brief insight to this man and his life.

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  20. So sorry to hear about your dear friend and thanks for sharing his beautiful story with us.

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  21. I'm sorry because my english is not fluent enoug to say what I wanted to say about Antoine and Nathalie.
    I met Antoine when he was quite young through his family and his sisters. And we went to Mauritania together (twinning travel). He was eighten years old (or nineteen)very childishly energetic and sure of himself. It was not easy to organize something with him.
    But his incredible charm could triumph over each problem.

    We met also in St Rémy, me deaply absorbed in broadcasting in Arles and we spent a few hours sharing our passions and plans in their so nice hotel with Nathalie from who i discovered the gentleness

    And we met again two weaks ago on Facebook, happy to share a few words and then the words of Valentin, his son, so sudden, so hard.

    Julie, your text is beautifull and touching and I recognize Antoine and his family. We share this loss all around the world. His interest in humanity can be the better memory that we will keep.

    Thank you !

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  22. Julie thank you for this tibute.
    My brother's death change my own world. I am happy every time someone shows his affection for my old enemy. I loved him. I'll try to be a good uncle for Simon and Valentin.
    Regards,
    Jérôme

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  23. Julie thank you for this tibute.
    My brother's death change my own world. I am happy every time someone shows his affection for my old enemy. I loved him. I'll try to be a good uncle for Simon and Valentin.
    Regards,
    Jérôme

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  24. Alain Giraud photographe
    I met Anthone in Ateliers de l'image, while the hotel was still under construction, thanks to an ICP photo workshop animated by Lucien Clergue and Teresa Engle my best friend.
    I keep good memories and I was excited that a man as nice and welcoming him go so young. I have a thought for his wife and children.

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