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
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.”
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.
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