Dispatches from Varsity tells the story of one experience of the Varsity Trip. Be aware: your mileage may vary.
Things commence, rather fittingly, with chaos. There are two-hour lines for antigen tests at DAM in the Clarendon Centre, and appointments are completely sold out.
Expected changes to French border regulations have been rather surreptitiously posted on both the government’s FCDO page for France and on the Varsity Trip website. These new restrictions which will come into place on 4th December (probably at midnight, but no one is quite sure). Travellers are required to register a negative result on a PCR or an antigen test before traveling to France. It is initially quite unclear whether NHS LFD tests count as antigen tests, but a bit of sleuthing reveals the caveat: tests cannot be self-administered.
So this is the Varsity Trip final prerequisite.
Owing to the fact that this information was not especially well-communicated, I only received notification of this from a friend at about 11am on departure day. Hence our scramble, shared by several hundred other Varsity Trippers, to get a same-day antigen test appointment. All tests at DAM were booked out. I go and stand in the queue anyway, hoping to blag things a bit, but it quickly becomes clear that DAM are only taking appointments, and messily at that: appointment schedules have been abandoned in favour of a free-for-all. The few elderly people in the waiting room seemed utterly bewildered. As I watch, a consultant comes out and rather tersely requests that a group of Trippers stop making so much noise.
DAM is a no-go, but a girl in a St John’s College puffer (to whom I will be eternally grateful) tells me that the somewhat opaquely named London Medical Company, outside Jesus College, are doing antigen tests. I head over and manage to book a 2:30 pm appointment for me and DT. We let our friend in London know this and she, too, is able to get a time. I learnt from another Tripper that this information has been circling more freely on the University-wide Varsity group chat. I wasn’t even aware that there was a University-wide Varsity Trip group chat.
I don’t think it’s entirely fair to say that Varsity has been organisationally flawed – things like France’s sudden restrictions changes couldn’t be predicted by NUCO, much less by the Committee. But it is maybe fair to say that the Varsity Trip organisation is complex. Even booking a ticket involves a mysterious queuing process which, among other logistical complications, privileges insider knowledge of having multiple browsers open, something which we discovered only accidentally. (More on this later.)
My appointment itself is fairly routine. This is my first experience of private healthcare, excepting the dentist. It consists of overpaying for a very simple procedure. I was worried for a little while, because the technician pushed the swab in deeper than I ever have, which made me worry that maybe I’d had COVID for weeks, but had never realised it because I hadn’t deigned to push the swab so far up my nostrils that I can nearly feel my brain. The procedure brings tears to my eyes. He gives me a tissue.
I note to the technician that this must have been a very good day for London Medical, who are conducting extremely simple procedures in their hundreds for £29 a pop. He acknowledges this: “well, you’re only paying for the convenience.” Apparently at one point earlier they ran out of tests and had to procure more.
This is, in my view, also demonstrative of what makes Varsity so fascinating and so article-worthy. It is Oxbridge in microcosm. It has its own social economy, and its own miniature free market, in that participants can trade tickets and events on Varsitickets and routinely make a neat profit by playing the games of availability and supply and demand. In the days immediately after the launch, Trippers were selling their tickets for prices above £1000, a practise roundly condemned by NUCO and the Varsity Trip committee. More recently, Oxtickets has been stormed by participants beset by injury and illness, willing to sell at a loss. One friend reports considering an offer of just £200.
These considerations are the impetus for this piece. In 1995, the late, great, problematic author and journalist David Foster Wallace wrote a piece for Tennis magazine entitled “Democracy and Commerce at the U.S. Open”, exploring some of the social and economic phenomena around a major U.S. sporting event. Varsity, I think, might not be entirely different.
“This must be a nightmare to organise,” someone astutely notes, as we stand, in a group two hundred or so strong, laden with bags and suitcases, outside Trinity College on Broad Street. It’s one of those moments where I am acutely aware that we Varsity Trippers move as a mob, generally causing inconvenience or bewilderment in holidaymakers and ferry-takers and people trying to walk down Broad Street. The NUCO buses to Val Thorens are arriving, in irregular sequence. The number of each bus is written on a pathetically tiny piece of paper in the front windscreen. When a bus makes the final turn, people scramble to be the first to find out the number, which is then vaguely communicated down the line by over-excitable shouting. At this point, everyone rushes forward, sideways, left, right, desperate to get to the bus first in the unlikely event that getting on first somehow makes a difference. I say all this, but of course I am guilty of it too. We end up somewhere near the front of the line, and DT is singled out to put his bag on first, possibly because it is so offensively huge.
A girl in front of me tells everyone and no one, “I fucking hate these things.” It is unclear whether she is referring to queues, or to coaches, or to the Varsity Trip in general.
Our two drivers are Scotsmen called Brian and Brian. We have a NUCO rep whose name might be Ben or Chris. He is very chilled and wears a hat at all times. When we board, he casually asks, “Has everyone had a fit-to-fly test?” in a way which is far less forbidding than NUCO’s injunction that if we don’t have these tests, we will be left alone to die or seek a refund. One guy shouts out, “Speak now, or be abandoned in Dover forever.”
The first couple of hours of the drive to Dover are pretty much what I expected. People chat to their friends until they get bored and lapse into semi-unconsciousness. There are a couple of interesting – dare I say Wallaceian? – exceptions. The first is that we receive complimentary gift bags from Newton Consulting, which contain Hula Hoops, a random assortment from a Quality Street tin, and either an eye-mask or a blow-up pillow. One wonders at this curious arrangement only for a little while. As DT points out, it makes a lot of sense for Newton to sponsor the Varsity Trip. Where else are you more likely to find the consultants of the future than among Oxbridge students? And there is, one might argue, a Varsity Trip ‘type’ which seems correlated with future consultants. DT notes that it is almost a legal requirement for guys here to have a mullet or a buzzcut. And everyone has quarter-zips. “If you don’t have a fleece,” says DT, “then what the fuck are you doing here?”
The other talking point is the NUCO soft techno remix which plays from Oxford to Dover. Technically this is just Radio 1 with Sarah Storey, but it is elevated in the environment of the NUCO bus, which has a surround-sound system and a TV that doesn’t work and no plug sockets (so much for ‘luxury’ coach travel). Once the lights are off, the bus morphs into a subdued club, where the techno assumes simultaneous functions of hyping us up to rave and lullabying us into sleep.
Somewhere on the M20, I drift off for a little while. I wake inside a tunnel which reminds me, a little bit, of a line from a Seamus Heaney poem – something like “weeping walls, blasted, flicker-lit.” The techno is briefly subdued, Radio 1 subterranean and obscured . When we emerge from the dark, a Guardian news alert pops up and informs us that there have been 75 new Omicron cases in the UK today. We are crossing a strange threshold, fleeing England in the night for Europe. We take a traffic diversion that leads us down mazy, beautiful lanes, and as we drift down into Dover, the mood drops into the surreal. The techno is still going: a disembodied voice says, “Music is our life’s foundations and shall succeed all nations”, which feels profound, more or less. But we’re among houses now, in Dover streets where normal people live, where the semi-detached houses are festooned with electric blue Christmas lights, where I am reminded of home, even though I have never been here. Dover is, after all, a real living place, not, as we may have projected it, a means to an end for the Varsity Trip. There are bits and pieces which look like they belong to a seaside town but it is all too shadowed to be certain. Is that Dover Castle?
We are, apparently, the first NUCO coach to be subjected to ‘enhanced’ security and screening procedures for COVID as we go through border control. Practically, this seems no different to any other border check. We do not actually present the antigen test results that we worked ourselves up into a frenzy for. We are quickly back aboard the coach, headed for the Spirit of France, which will bear us across the Channel.. Our rep informs us, quite specifically, that fancy dress has been banned aboard the ferry. It’s impossible not to wonder why.
The ferry itself is a subdued experience, featuring Starbucks hot chocolate which, like all Starbucks products, is slightly disappointing. I have a pleasant and unexpected meeting with a fellow Oxford Blue senior editor who bought a ticket last minute and is traveling alone, due to meet up with friends in Val Thorens. He mildly informs me that my first experiences of skiing will probably be terrifying. This is not especially comforting to hear.
The next morning. Grey and bleary. According to a roadside sign, Geneva is 219 miles away. Kilometers, even. This leads to the recurrent and extremely British realisation that France is huge. We cross an immense, freezing-looking river. On the horizon we glimpse a set of funnels from a power plant and an air traffic control tower.
The NUCO bus is pretty much dead silent, a departure from last night’s bizarre soft techno. Everyone has retreated to their own little worlds, which is to say that most of them are sleeping. Sleeping on the bus is generally uncomfortable and once again stresses how NUCO has stretched the definition of ‘luxury’ coach travel. One of our two drivers – two Scotsmen both named Brian – is at the wheel. Myself, I am awake, and cramped, and extremely sore because my complimentary Newton travel goody bag did not contain a complimentary Newton blow-up travel pillow. Instead I have a complimentary Newton eyemask, which is so aggressively bright green on the inside as to render it almost useless for anything other than a brief psychedelic experience.) I am not in pain but the situation is mildly irritating. I am typing this on my phone because there is not really room to get my laptop out, and also because it would be nice to surprise DT before he can steal elements of this for Cherwell.
We stop at a French service station, which has a few subtle differences from English motorway conveniences. Firstly, there is that staple of inferiority, the Burger King, but it is subordinate to a stall selling pâtisseries, where the servers speak French, German, and a little English. You can also buy rip-off Levis, pretty good wine, and French children’s books. There is also a chiller with sandwich combinations which range from the mysterious (Emmental and ham on the vaguely named ‘Swedish bread’) to the downright offensive (tuna and egg, anyone?) Downstairs, at the bathrooms, we are informed that these toilets were specifically designed by the service station company so that “on se sent bien”. I am unsure what this notion of feeling good actually alludes to.
Somewhat more notable and particular to this service station, is that there is a large stone circular monument in the back, surrounded by Ardennes pines and benches. It looks a bit like the Eye of Sauron, except in stone. After a brief encounter with a self service coffee machine, DT and I submit to the masculine urge to investigate anything old and weird-looking. Apparently it is the Pavillon des Cercles, which – as I understand it – commemorates the local architect of an eighteenth century town built on a circular plan.
This is the sort of unusual monument which reminds me of one of the things I like most about international traveling: the little local bits and pieces which announce the location subtly. I suspect Varsity will not quite be the same.
Val Thorens, by my reckoning, is still about six hours away. Certainly this part of France does not look like it has much going for it in the way of mountains. Lunch will consist of some combination of the ‘supplies’ DT and I bought at the big Tesco in Broad Street, consisting of four Nature Valley protein bars, some salted caramel cookies and a bag of mixed sweet and salted popcorn. More on that later. For now I sit, in this one of many almost-identical NUCO coaches, progressing through some anonymous part of eastern France, where wild fog rests heavy on the world, and time seems to be at a pause.