Switzerland has a lot to offer - not only in the form of a multitude of sports and leisure activities, the excellent cuisine and breathtaking countryside, but also the first-class education the country offers. Discerning people send their children to Switzerland because there are around 250 private schools there which enjoy a world-wide reputation. They are exclusive, strict and a guarantee of success.
The spacious park with a wonderful view of the Alps and the lake, Villa Pierrefeu, a magnificent chalet built in the early 20's, boasts an excellent setting. The exclusive finishing school is the only remaining “old school” establishment of its kind and is an insider tip. Diplomats, businessmen, lawyers and doctors send their daughters to this “school of life”, which has already prepared the niece of the Japanese emperor and daughters of princes, sheikhs and presidents for their future.
Tact, good form and total discipline are required if girls want to be admitted to Villa Pierrefeu. Most of the girls have their secondary school certificate and a broad general education, since the requirements are tough. There are 40 lessons a week in diplomacy, dining etiquette, housekeeping and cooking, in both theory and practice.
At Villa Pierrefeu about a dozen girls at a time follow a three-term course, where finesse is the keyword. It is a course guaranteed to make certain feminists shiver with disapproval and some men shiver with delight, because this finishing school is primarily a school for the perfect wife - it is here that she will learn exactly what is meant by “nouvelle cuisine” for example.
Hostess adept in the rules of etiquette marries millionaire? Not at all! Even a daughter from a well-established family doesn't bump into her knight in shining armour every day. Thus, school-director Madame Neri prefers to regard the time the girls spending in her finishing school as providing a good basis for the future.
Madame Viviane Neri
It is important that the girls are in an international milieu, that they become more tolerant - at 20 one is often extremely intolerant - and that they develop an “open” mind by speaking to girls from other countries about their customs and habits, how they live with their families etc. That is actually what the girls always tend to say at the end, that they have learned tolerance.
We send each girl home with skills that will always be of benefit to her. She should be able to work independently and know how to receive people or how to organise a reception. That is why protocol is necessary, especially when you have to deal with people who hold official positions. When you only have to seat the mayor, it is perhaps not so important, but when you invite the mayor, a member of parliament or an ambassador together, then you must know exactly how to seat them and welcome them.
Then we teach cookery, etiquette, savoir vivre, table decoration, flower arrangement, furniture..... etc. - in other words - everything that is of relevance.
Learning by doing - that is the principal of this practical training. A girl used to having staff to do things for her will have to change her habits to assume social duties, either on a private or social level, should know how to be efficiently organised. The argument as to whether finishing school is at all necessary today is a question that doesn't even come up. The institution is fully booked throughout the year.
Respect for people of other nationalities, religion and philosophy of life is one important aspect, the strict curriculum another. Everything is marked and tested in French - including flower arrangement, washing plates, scrubbing pans and cleaning silver. After the three to nine month course and having passed the final exams, the students receive a certificate or the highly-prized diploma. The complete three-term school programme also allows a thorough preparation for internationally recognised language qualifications, mainly in French.
Audio-visual material and the institute's own course books are put at the student's disposal. The girls are encouraged, under professional supervision, to speak French at all tim es, in order to extend their vocabulary in the shortest tim e possible.
Everything worth knowing about “savoir vivre” is to be found in the extensive library - ranging from general knowledge, history of art and period furniture, through sewing and childcare to table decoration and gastronomic culture. Every day the girls practice setting and decorating the table before serving a formal lunch, or preparing for receptions of all kinds. This institution is more reminiscent of an elegant private house than a school. Good style is not explained but demonstrated.
What do the young ladies themselves think of the course at Villa Pierrefeu?
Very good. It is extremely international and the school does not have the elitist, snobby character you might expect. It is really fun.
Here, you don't only learn French but also the technical French term used, for example in etiquette or for cooking - so not the typical French you learn at a run-of-the-mill language school.
I had no idea about cooking or how to run a household and want to learn about it. The added advantage here is that it is all in French. The other good thing is that you don't jut learn how to cook, but also many other useful things.
Despite its strict curriculum, this inherently conservative school is fairly liberal. Young ladies over 18 may, if they wish, stay in the school's own student flats and come and go as they please. Girls under 18 are in supervised accommodation in the villa itself. The single, double or three-bed rooms are decorated in Laura Ashley style, all with bed, telephone and a view of the lake and the Alps .
There are probably only a few countries which offer such an attractive leisure programme as Switzerland. The mountains and Lake Geneva both offer a wide variety of leisure activities. To familiarise the students with European culture, Villa Pierrefeu organises a number of study trips each term, including visits to companies, castles and museums - such as the in Martigny.
And even if it might appear to be the case, none of the girls actually wants to end up as a housewife. They feel ready for a career as a stewardess or PR agent or want to enter the hotel or restaurant trade. It is a shame that there is no immediate hope of a finishing school for men. After all, don't women also dream of finding a gentleman who is perfectly educated in art and culture, and knows all the finer aspects of wining and dining.
* This special feature "Institut Villa Pierrefeu" has been one of more than 300 Portraits, produced by Nathalie Gütermann for her TV-Shows 'Nathalie's Lifestyle' and 'Nathalie's Art of Living' that were broadcasted between 1990 - 2003 in Germany and in 15 countries world-wide. The content has been updated with actual information in 2004 for Nathalies-Lifestyle.com © 1990 - 2004. The reproduction or other use of any text, photographs, etc. needs the prior written permission of the Chief Publisher.