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.