An insider’s view on life in the French Alps.
You might say, that having lived in the French Alps for the last 15 years that Helen Watts, director and teacher at the Alpine French School in Morzine, Haut-Savoie, is living the dream, but has it all been plain sailing and what’s expat life really like when you’re tucked away in the mountains?
What inspired you to move to this little alpine town?
I moved to Morzine in 2000 after studying French in Grenoble and falling in love with the Alps. I liked Morzine because of its year-round activity and the fact that it’s a working town as well as a ski resort so unlike many resorts, it is as busy in the summer as it is in the winter. It is a very beautiful town with chalet-style architecture and none of the high rise buildings that have spoilt so many resorts. And there’s so much to do.
Was it easy to find the home of your dreams?
We wanted to build our own house so that we could design it exactly how we wanted. My husband loves property development so it was his project really and it is a lovely house. We built a traditional wooden chalet while I was pregnant with our son, Xavier and moved in soon after he was born.
Is there a big expat community where you are?
Yes there is a big expat community, I think this is the case in most Alpine areas of France. We both have French colleagues, French friends, locals and ones who have moved to the area like ourselves. Our children are also at school in France so we feel like we are part of the French community as well as the expat one.
What’s been your biggest challenge when it comes to living in France?
I’d say the biggest challenge to living in France is getting to know the French administration system and understanding it. Although France is a neighbouring country to the UK, the taxation system is very different and culturally there are big differences too. But once you understand how the country works and accept the little particularities, it’s a great place to live. Also, of course there are things that you miss: friends, family, favourite British foods but luckily being only an hour from Geneva airport, we fly back regularly and friends and family come out to visit and make the most of the mountains at the same time.
Have you found it easy to make friends there?
When I moved here, Morzine was a lot smaller than it is now so I found it very easy to make friends. However, now that it has grown some people say it is harder but I think if you have children in the schools and work with other people rather than from home then these 2 things make a big difference.
You run your own business. That must have presented a few challenges along the way?
There are a lot of hoops to jump through when it comes to running a business. It’s complicated and the cost of employing staff is extremely high. But again once you understand this, you can concentrate on making your business work. I started teaching English and French in the area, then worked for a while at a language school in Geneva which I really enjoyed. However, my heart was still in Morzine so I returned to Morzine to turn my freelance teaching into a language school. It has grown steadily over the years and now we offer a wide range of courses for adults and juniors and it is lovely to have a growing business that helps people to learn languages and achieve their personal and professional goals. I am now in partnership with 2 of my French colleagues and we are always striving to grow the business and offer more variety and great courses.
What’s your guilty pleasure when it comes to living in France?
French wine. I love French wine, especially Burgundy wines and this is definitely one of the main advantages of living in France for me. My husband jokes that I have become a wine snob.
So what would you do differently if you had the chance?
I’m not sure I’d do anything differently really. Maybe I would have tried to buy property when the prices were lower in alpine resorts but I’ve had a great time living and working in Morzine and there is very little that I would change.
Have you got any advice for anyone considering a move to France?
This is quite an easy one … you need to start learning French before you come to France. Then once you’re here, you need to make an investment of time to continue learning. It opens so many doors and helps you integrate properly. Also, accept that there are many differences between France and your home country, learn about these and embrace them.
… And bring some proper English tea with you as the French ‘English Breakfast Tea’ just isn’t the same.
Morzine is about an hour from Geneva airport. It is in the Portes du Soleil region, one of the largest ski areas in the world. The Alpine French School offers a choice of very practical, hands on French language courses and classes at every level, throughout the year. And you can combine your classes with a number of different alpine courses. You can find out more at www.alpinefrenchschool.com