The hour of the phone call.
Having finally met Christian Aussel face-to-face in Le Bosquet’s front garden (see last week’s post), Philippe and I remained none the wiser whether Edouard Muterse really was the father of our beloved Bellevue. But speaking for ten minutes with Edouard Muterse’s great-grandnephew – largely through the formidable barrier of his motorcycle helmet – made us even more intrigued about the possible ancestry of our French Rivieran home.
I waited out the rest of that sunny afternoon in anticipation of an early evening phone call to Jean Aussel, Christian’s father and Edouard Muterse’s grandnephew. Antibes’ Archives Municipales helped me track down the octogenarian to Le Bosquet. He was “a charming man who always has a lot of things to say,” they told me. Alas, he was napping at the time of our visit.
Just before 6pm, Philippe and I convened in Bellevue’s library. It was the room with the best telephone connection – and the spot having the best Mediterranean views to keep six-year-old Lolo occupied. That said, jumping between the leather couch and a cushioned ottoman in the center of the room – which was what she was doing – wasn’t exactly the sort of occupation I had in mind.
I tried to explain to our baboon that Mommy and Papa had an important phone call to make. A really important call to someone who was much older than we were and who might have to listen closely to what we said. I focused Lolo’s energies through a strong pair of binoculars aimed out the library window. From here she could inspect Billionaires’ Row in Port Vauban. The secretive, Qatari megayacht Katara had just floated in. The dazzling, white, 408-foot-long subdivision – bigger than Antibes’ Old Town, so it seemed – surely would keep her attention for a few minutes.
Philippe perched on the arm of the couch and took the phone. I sat, pen poised, facing him. It was an unfortunate state of affairs for my personal research, but Philippe was the one with the language skills – and the Quebecois charm. Between the two of us, he had a far better chance of engaging Jean Aussel.
One more thing. We chose against the speakerphone. I wasn’t thrilled about hearing everything after-the-fact, but throwing an 80-something-year old on speakerphone seemed rude. And anyway, there was that baboon in the room.
Someone answered. Very unusually for my husband – a man who, assuming he loved the stuff, could sell fois gras to a vegetarian – Philippe faltered on his introduction. He jumbled his name, Bellevue’s street address and what he wanted into one, sweeping breath.
I decided he was talking to an answerphone – a rarity in France, but still.
No, on second take, Philippe spoke to a person. That person went off in search of Jean Aussel. I figured it was an assistant, someone who helped the elderly man maneuver around his house.
My pen remained poised, but there was nothing to write. Meanwhile, our calm six-year-old daughter became bored with captivating Katara and started using the binocs to peruse the bay.
Jean Aussel came to the phone. Philippe’s posture straightened. His language became polished. The first piece of his introduction was – get this – that he was a Quebecois. To the French, this word is code for “long lost cousin”. The term immediately softens every French soul.
Philippe perched on the couch, listening intently. He was obviously intrigued by Jean’s conversation – amused even. My pen hovered expectantly, but Philippe only tossed me a few words. Jean was doing all the talking.
Finally – FINALLY – my husband brought me into the context of the conversation. He launched the question that went to the heart of our search. The Big Question that determined whether it was even relevant for us to connect with the fascinating family who lived in Le Bosquet – the one who had offered the celebrated Guy de Maupassant residence, the family called Muterse, and now Aussel, whose Antibois roots plunged widely and deeply into the good soil of this ancient city.
Dites-moi, Philippe said to Jean. Tell me, was it Edourard Muterse who built Bellevue?
My husband listened briefly and nodded. I think his eyes actually twinkled. He put his palm over the receiver and uttered the words I most wanted to hear: “Edouard built the house!”
I punched my fist into the air and declared a victorious “Yes!” “EM built home,” I scribbled – as if I’d ever forget that golden nugget. In that single phrase, my nascent passion to unearth all facts and stories and details Muterse suddenly sprouted legs. Real, firmly-rooted legs.
Philippe covered the telephone receiver again and threw me another, seemingly riveting morsel. “It’s the same family!”
Whatever that meant. “Same family?” I jotted on the page. If he forgot to explain, I’d ask.
Lolo suddenly was finished with Katara, the whole of Billionaires’ Row and the most mesmerizing bay in the French Riviera. She went back to bouncing between the couch and the ottoman.
Philippe repeated another phrase he just heard. “Mille cinq cents vingt.”
Numbers are the worst thing to understand in French. I wrote down the words and then translated them into figures: 1,520. And so?
The bouncing baboon was working herself into a frenzy. As I thanked God we’d decided against a chandelier in that room, Jean excused himself for a moment to check something with his wife.
His wife? I’d never thought of him having a wife. Philippe covered the phone and leaned toward me: “His wife – her family rented the house during the war years!”
Which was honestly incredible. It made no sense whatsoever.
The two men slipped back into conversation, talking quite delightedly with one another. I began to worry that Philippe was gathering all the best, firsthand information. All that’d remain for me would be his rehashing of Jean’s stories, an almost-precise remnant of their meandering telephone conversation. But finally – finally! – Philippe mentioned we’d like to meet up with Jean for an hour or so.
The Frenchman seemed open to the idea. The men were talking about meeting here? At Bellevue? Yes, yes, they were – tomorrow? 6pm? Philippe was offering to collect Jean and his wife, but Jean insisted he not worry. The elderly Antibois knew his way around this area pretty well.
At last my husband rang off. “Jean – he’s a real storyteller!” he said. “He’s incredibly lucid.” There went my vision of the frail 80-something who needed a home nurse. Then Philippe filled in the detail.
Edouard Muterse, when he built Bellevue, gave her another name. He called her Lou Gargali.
While I’d been aware of this name, I never realised it was Bellevue’s original name. Exactly when the name changed – and by whom and for what reason – remained a mystery. But Jean unpacked its meaning. Lou Gargali was a Provençal term for a very unusual, morning wind.
I thought immediately of the tumultuous winter we’d endured in Antibes a few years ago. Living within Lou Gargali’s walls was like living inside a teakettle that was constantly approaching its boil.
Jean’s 1,520 number corresponded to – get this – the year to which he could trace his family’s land ownership in this area. (That “one-thousand, five-hundred twenty” was a year never crossed my mind. Think about it: Ferdinand Magellan was still alive.) What’s more, Jean Aussel’s seriously established family was his own, current project. He was writing a 500-page book about them. He had only three pages to go.
But the bizarre, small-world and entirely riveting thing about this whole affair was that, as a young girl, Jean Aussel’s wife lived at Lou Gargali. France is hardly a land of arranged marriages or family trees with no branches, so let me rephrase: The wife of Edouard Muterse’s grandnephew lived in the house that Edouard Muterse built. Her family rented Lou Gargali from Edouard during World War II, a grand travesty played out on Antibes’ very grounds. Jean didn’t know the young girl at this time, but it was through this connection – Edouard Muterse and Lou Gargali – that they met each other.
Lou Gargali and her founder were probably responsible – just doing the math here – for a 50- or 60-year marriage. At a minimum they deserved god-parenting rights.
And so it was she, Jean Aussel’s wife, who was the more interested in seeing Lou Gargali again. She hadn’t been here since the 1950s or so. Inside Lou Gargali – our Bellevue – lived her childhood memories of the war and, surely, of her parents and any siblings.
So tomorrow. What should we do? Tour the house and have a drink? Offer the Aussels dinner? What does a North American whip up for well-healed, French-to-their-bone-marrow guests without having to sweat over a stove?
A tape recorder! I need to find a tape recorder. Philippe believes Jean’s going to give me 90% of what I’m looking for, so I don’t want to miss a single one of his precious, French words.
But what am I looking for exactly? I need to clarify that, too. Facts. Characters. Connections.
In short, I’m seeking stories of the past. Stories that will make Lou Gargali – our darling Bellevue – come alive.