TOP OF THE CLASS

He­len Watts fell in love with the Alps when she was a stu­dent and she now runs a thriv­ing lan­guage school in Morzine. Stephanie Shel­drake meets the en­ter­pris­ing woman who jug­gles work and fam­ily life in the moun­tains

Living France - - Contents - alpine­french­school.com

Lan­guage school owner He­len Watts ex­plains why Morzine is a great place to raise a fam­ily

Alot of peo­ple say it’s like we’re liv­ing in a bub­ble,” ad­mits He­len Watts, who lives with her hus­band and two young chil­dren in Morzine, a pretty vil­lage and a pop­u­lar ski re­sort in Haute-Savoie. “And we say, ‘you’ve got to live some­where so why not live in a beau­ti­ful bub­ble?’” laughs He­len, who loves the qual­ity of life, the scenery and out­door lifestyle that comes with liv­ing in the Alps.

He­len fell in love with France at a young age – her grand­mother was a French teacher and she en­joyed the French lan­guage and go­ing to France on hol­i­day. She went on to study French at univer­sity, and as part of her de­gree she spent a year study­ing in Greno­ble.

“I re­ally en­joyed it. At first I felt a bit home­sick be­cause I was young and back then things were dif­fer­ent – no one spoke a word of English – not like now in France. Af­ter I got over the cul­ture shock I ab­so­lutely loved liv­ing there. I met some great peo­ple and loved the area,” says He­len, who en­joyed ski­ing and snow­board­ing. Af­ter fin­ish­ing univer­sity, He­len de­cided that she wanted to set­tle in France and moved to Morzine in 2000.

With her ex­cel­lent French lan­guage skills, He­len found that more and more peo­ple kept ask­ing her to teach them French or English so she de­cided to set up Lost in Trans­la­tion in 2003 to meet de­mand, and sub­se­quently gained a teach­ing qual­i­fi­ca­tion.

“Orig­i­nally it was just me do­ing all the teach­ing my­self and then I had a busi­ness part­ner who did some of the teach­ing in the sum­mer with me. She ran a snow­board­ing school and as her busi­ness grew she had less time to teach, so then I started em­ploy­ing teach­ers to work with me be­cause I was too busy,” ex­plains He­len.

He­len then went to Geneva where she worked at a large lan­guage school. “I taught, man­aged the com­pany con­tacts and I was in­volved in lots of as­pects of run­ning the school. It was great be­cause it gave me ex­pe­ri­ence of run­ning a large lan­guage school.”

MOUN­TAIN CALL­ING

In 2012 He­len de­cided that she didn’t want to live per­ma­nently in Geneva. “I re­ally en­joyed it but I wanted to live in the moun­tains, so I de­cided that I would come back and turn Lost in Trans­la­tion, which was in ef­fect free­lance teach­ers, into a proper school.”

Back in Morzine, He­len and the two teach­ers she had been work­ing with pre­vi­ously de­cided to set up a lim­ited com­pany. “The first thing we did was change the name. Lost in Trans­la­tion was a re­ally good name when it was just mostly Bri­tish ex­pats who un­der­stood the play on words. But we started to of­fer cour­ses to lots of dif­fer­ent na­tion­al­i­ties and they thought we just did trans­la­tion so we de­cided we needed a name that was a bit more self-ex­plana­tory.”

Keep­ing it sim­ple, they named the busi­ness ‘Alpine French School’, and He­len and her two busi­ness part­ners took on premises in cen­tral Morzine and started of­fer­ing a wider range of cour­ses, as well as pack­ages which in­clude ac­com­mo­da­tion, lessons, ac­tiv­i­ties and ski passes, etc.

He­len ex­plains that the school of­fers a range of classes, mainly con­sist­ing of ei­ther lo­cal French peo­ple want­ing to learn English and also mostly Bri­tish or other An­glo­phone ex­pats and other na­tion­al­i­ties who want to learn French. Many choose pack­ages which in­clude ac­com­mo­da­tion

and air­port trans­fers, and com­bine lessons with ac­tiv­i­ties – ski­ing in the win­ter and other ac­tiv­i­ties such as walk­ing, moun­tain bik­ing, climb­ing and white-wa­ter raft­ing in the sum­mer.

Con­trary to her ini­tial ex­pec­ta­tions, the sum­mer cour­ses are busier than those in win­ter. “Like ev­ery­thing in busi­ness, some things sur­prise you!” laughs He­len, who puts it down to the fact that more peo­ple take hol­i­days in the sum­mer in gen­eral, and more peo­ple think of tak­ing a study-travel pack­age of this na­ture in the sum­mer months. “It’s great here in the sum­mer – most busi­nesses in the ski re­sort are busier in the win­ter, so we’re the op­po­site.”

Two years ago, Alpine French School started of­fer­ing a chil­dren’s sum­mer camp in the school hol­i­days, which has proved to be very suc­cess­ful. “We didn’t ex­pect it to be so pop­u­lar so quickly. It’s great; it’s a lot of or­gan­i­sa­tion but it’s re­ally re­ward­ing be­cause the chil­dren get so much out of it,” says He­len. “We had 45% more book­ings be­tween the first and sec­ond year – it’s an or­gan­i­sa­tional chal­lenge!” says He­len who jug­gles her ca­reer with her life as mum of two young chil­dren – Xavier (four) and Josie (three).

In fact, He­len ad­mits that the only thing she per­haps would have done dif­fer­ently is start the sum­mer camp sooner. “But in a way the whole busi­ness has grown or­gan­i­cally which I think is quite a good way to do it,” she says.

FAM­ILY LIFE

When it comes to jug­gling work and fam­ily com­mit­ments, He­len ex­plains that her sit­u­a­tion is not as dif­fi­cult as it is for those work­ing in the ski re­sorts, who of­ten work chal­leng­ing hours. He­len’s hus­band, Paul (who is also English) works on prop­erty de­vel­op­ment projects. “Our jobs are slightly sea­sonal in that we’re both a bit busier in the sum­mer and the win­ter, but we both work Mon­day to Fri­day dur­ing the day­time. A lot of peo­ple in ski re­sorts work crazy hours, so it could be more of a jug­gling act.”

The cou­ple’s chil­dren, Xavier and Josie, are both at school in mater­nelle and are com­pletely bilin­gual; speak­ing French at school and at ac­tiv­ity clubs, and English at home. “It’s quite im­por­tant for bilin­gual chil­dren to have a clear sep­a­ra­tion in the lan­guages,” ex­plains He­len. “They’ve never known any­thing else so they think it’s com­pletely nat­u­ral to speak both French and English which is re­ally lovely.”

For He­len, liv­ing in Morzine of­fers a greater qual­ity of life for her and her fam­ily. “It’s such a lovely safe place to grow up,” she en­thuses.

“We have won­der­ful sum­mers and win­ters, and there are lots of ac­tiv­i­ties for chil­dren. The scenery, the out­door lifestyle, the ac­tiv­i­ties are a real at­trac­tion for a lot of peo­ple. If you love be­ing out­side, you can do pretty much any sport here and the in­fra­struc­ture is great for that sort of thing.

“We’ve got an amaz­ing swim­ming pool com­plex, we’ve got ten­nis courts, foot­ball pitches, a new skate park and an ice rink. For a vil­lage of this size the in­fra­struc­ture is in­cred­i­ble and they’re al­ways im­prov­ing it,” says He­len.

It’s easy to see why peo­ple tell He­len that she’s liv­ing in a bub­ble. “One day my lit­tle boy said to me, ‘Mummy, am I go­ing to nor­mal school to­day or ski school or maybe snow­board­ing?’” smiles He­len. “They don’t re­alise they’re re­ally lucky hav­ing that life – for them it’s nor­mal.”

He­len and her fam­ily are in the process of ap­ply­ing for French cit­i­zen­ship. “This is where our busi­nesses are, our home is and where our chil­dren are grow­ing up – it makes sense,” says He­len.

It looks like He­len’s ‘bub­ble’ isn’t go­ing to burst any time soon.

“We have won­der­ful sum­mers and win­ters, and there are lots of ac­tiv­i­ties for chil­dren”

He­len Watts, with hus­band Paul and two chil­dren, Xavier and Josie

Above: He­len Watts set up Alpine French School, which of­fers classes in both French and English

Left: The sum­mer camps have proved a big suc­cess Above: He­len at the school’s front desk ( left) Be­low: Alpine French School is lo­cated in the heart of Morzine, a pretty Alpine vil­lage and pop­u­lar ski re­sort

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