For an introduction to the Varsity Trip, see the previous instalment.
“Do we have a Varsity playlist?” “Not yet.” “Should we just put Taylor Swift on?” “Yes.” Unanimous agreement.
We have been in Val Thorens for about twenty-four hours now, following an ascent of the world’s steepest road which was marked by my discovery that snow chains are actually chains. My Varsity Trip wristband has already bonded to my skin. I have skied semi-successfully, taken a chair-lift for the first time, and our group have gotten the handle on a routine. There are still a lot of things to explore, but my experience is enough to make some observations.
Val Thorens is an unexpectedly normal place. There are several thousand Varsity Trippers here, but there are also thousands of French and Spanish and German tourists, and everyone from elderly non-skiers to families with small children. I see kids zooming about who invariably look more competent than I am. One youngish-looking dad whirls his son about on the end of one pole while propelling them both along with the other. It’s always curious, for me, to see this kind of thing: skiing was never a holiday idea that my parents even contemplated. I wonder if these five- and six-year-old kids realise that they are remarkably lucky.
Val Thorens is small, but it feels deceptively big. This is because while a club or a bar might be only a couple of hundred metres away, to reach it you will need to navigate around pistes and other inaccessible obstacles. VT is varied, enchanting and, to my English ears, sometimes quite weird. I recently went out on a walk to get groceries, to a SPAR which like much of VT (a complex mess of rabbit-warrenish paths which often lead nowhere) is submerged below street level. You can buy a box of Russian white tea here for €25. Hotels here have the reception on the top level, at the surface, and you descend rather than ascend to the rooms, which have balconies and access to the slopes. There must be a hundred such hotels here, with names which sound like they’ve been plucked from the ‘generic hotel starter pack’: Machu Picchu, Cheval Blanche, Village Montana, Club de Soleil. There is a massage parlour advertising “reeducation”; and a bar called Jackie, which sounds like the most mysteriously French name for a bar I can imagine. Is it named after Jackie Kennedy? Maybe. If so, why?
My grand idea for the Varsity Trip was to manifest Adam Driver in House of Gucci. To that end, I have brought white jeans with me. However, most of VT takes place in ski jackets, sweatpants, and layers of UNIQLO HEATTECH, which are decidedly less romantic. Despite my best attempts, I am yet to find a place to get coffee with a truly inspiring view. This is perhaps because my first day in VT has been spent trudging through registrationand endless paperwork, a process which involves repeated encounters with the trip’s ski jacket-clad taskforce, NUCO.
Out of interest, I ask DT what NUCO stands for. He says “Hmm,” and has a think about it for a good long time, trying to come up with something funny. The point is that nobody actually knows what NUCO stands for, or whether it is an initialism at all.
As a direct or indirect result of NUCO’s activities – or lack thereof – in the past twenty-four hours I have: spent ninety minutes in the freezing cold just waiting to get into my accommodation; filled out the same police registration form four times; and wandered round aimlessly on a ski slope, looking for a possibly non-existent rendezvous point while attempting to figure out how to casually ski onto a ‘magic carpet’ despite never having picked up a pair of poles in my life.
At the same time, NUCO is probably the most useful and effective organisation on the Varsity Trip. They are marked out by their pale burgundy ski jackets and by generally being quite photogenic. The reps are unfailingly friendly and helpful, though they are usually hindered in the act of helping by generally not having any of the answers to your questions. The only person over thirty who works for NUCO is the quasi-legendary Michael Winterton, who sometimes sends us texts about the delivery of my ski clothing or to inform us that the Eskiador ski shop has run out of helmets.
My first in-person encounter with NUCO was at the Varsity Trip Feet Measuring™, which this year was conducted in Saint Columba’s Methodist Church in Alfred Street, perhaps the most forgettable street in Oxford. There were four or five NUCO reps, the vibiest of whom had taken command of a small white high-tech slab connected to a tablet.. The pews had been shuffled away and we sat on low, mismatched wooden chairs waiting our turn. We gave our names, our heights, and our weights, in metric, of course. A handy conversion chart was pasted at the front of the queue for anyone too British or too lazy to convert feet and inches into centimetres ahead of time.
I was there to have my feet measured, of course, but also – forgive the turn-of-phrase – to take measure of Varsity. Obviously there’s only so much that can be said, but the Feet Measuring™ demonstrated the vibe in microcosm. I made a few observations at the time which have been borne out in the first couple of days of the trip. Firstly: though most people on Varsity are white, there are exceptions (including yours truly). I would not be, and am not, the blackest stranger in the Alps, as my flatmate had suggestions. Secondly, not everyone is a wealthy European heiress named Fleur or Cordelia, although undoubtedly, someone is. Thirdly, though, there is a Varsity type. DT noticed it in the quarter-zip fleeces and mullets and buzzcuts (see the previous article). For me, it was the flared jeans which were much more Urban Outfitters than actual charity shop. Everyone looks a little bit like their idea of thrift is Vivienne Westwood.
Let me be frank. I was able to come on this trip because I had £700 to spare, which was remarkably privileged position to find myself in. But one of the most telling things about the Varsity Trip, I think, is how little people here actually talk about money as a material cost, rather than an inconvenience. If you have to pay another £59 for a PCR on return, that is annoying, but the annoyance does not seem numerical. For a lot of people, I suspect that the inconvenience would be neither diminished or increased whether it was £5.90 or £590.
I can’t help feeling I have to change my register a little bit to hang round with these people. The same goes for the NUCO staff, to whom I find myself saying “mate” a lot, just to let them know that I’m not actually taking things too seriously. Because everyone else is doing exactly the same thing, the general conversational vibe of Varsity is ‘shit chat’. It’s like the non-conversations you have with people you just met in Park End, only in daylight. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Some of the ‘shit chat’ is pretty funny. I asked one of the NUCO guys at the Foot Measuring™ about how long he’d been working. “Since 9am,” he told me, “and we’re working until 5:30. And then we’re doing Cambridge tomorrow.” There’s a joke to be made about the banality of spending nineteen hours measuring feet, but in my experience it’s impossible to make foot-based jokes that don’t seem fetishistically inappropriate. Except he went there. “You have the best feet I’ve seen all day,” he told me. ‘Shit chat’ as a bespoke art form. Although I bet he said that to everyone.
As I’ve said, NUCO’s reps are perfectly pally. They are themselves almost indistinguishable from a lot of Varsity Trippers. Unfortunately, their friendliness isn’t enough to resolve most of the logistical issues on the trip. Firstly, despite having an app and an entire email list, most of the important communication about upcoming social events comes through the Varsity Trip’s Instagram story, which is frankly bizarre. More importantly, NUCO doesn’t have a proper solution in the event that –despite staggered departure times – an unexpectedly large number of the Varsity Trip buses arrived in Val Thorens at the same time, around 4:30pm on Saturday. As such, we find ourselves standing out in the cold for ninety minutes, waiting to check in to our accommodation. We are told by NUCO reps that there is not enough space inside for everyone to wait with their bags while social distancing, so one person from each group is called forward while others huddle in the snow in a queue that doesn’t seem to move forward so much as slowly and gradually bunch together. This is a reasonable solution, but no directions are given to places where we could wait, so there are hundreds of us out there freezing. By the end of it DT looks like death warmed up.
While we wait in line, NUCO gives us arrival forms to fill in, but because of the extreme cold and the lack of actually solid writing surfaces, I have to write mine out three times before I produce one that is actually legible. (NUCO later lose my completed form and I had to fill out a fourth. This was mostly just irritating.)
NUCO’s third organisational fuckup is one that I’m not entirely sure they know about yet. Essentially, my first ski lesson involves meeting the instructors at a mysterious rendezvous point called the Rond Point des Pistes, which does not come up on Google Maps. This in itself is fine. NUCO helpfully provides a map with GPS co-ordinates for all the Val Thorens locations. Except. Not, apparently, for the mysterious Rond Point des Pistes, though. As such, I have to seek out directions from a NUCO rep, who points me in the vague direction of the bottom of a ‘magic carpet’, which is a kind of travelator like the ones at Heathrow, except uphill in the snow. Upon reaching the bottom of said ‘carpet’ I discover that this is not the Rond Point des Pistes, but the ‘magic carpet’ can be used to helpfully re-ascend the slope. Unfortunately, people on this ‘carpet’ are wearing their skis, and despite some helpful pointers from my friend and flatmate Louisa, I have never actually put on skis before.
Nonetheless, I am running out of time, so I must try. I snap on my skis and move towards the ‘carpet’. Unfortunately, there is a very slight slope and I have not yet learned how to master even those most miniscule and pathetic of unfavourable inclines. Therefore every step forward literally becomes a step back and my attempt to advance five metres leads to pretty much the exact reverse. Eventually I give up and resolve to walk. I remember one of Louisa’s helpful pointers, and stab the release catches on one ski with my pole, but in my ineptitude I manage to get it stuck. This crisis is resolved with the assistance of two fellow Varsity Trippers (which seems like a recurrent activity). Somehow I make it to my ski lesson on time, and for the most part, I find it very enjoyable. As part of my continuing comedy of errors, I manage to lose my group and ski instructor for twenty-five minutes, largely due to be inability to brake consistently. I reascend the hill to look for them, talk to the head instructor, and am told to ski down a slope without much in the way of training, and pretty much crashing into a group of people waiting for a ski-lift. Fortunately by this point I am pretty much immune to shame.
The thing is, all of this seems pretty much acceptable on Varsity. The mood is so easygoing that despite comedies of errors and minor tragedies of disorganisation, there’s nothing especially taxing about any of this. Things are, for the most part, fairly chilled.
On the day of the journey, we stopped at a supermarket, which might well have been fairly quiet until it was brigaded by four Varsity Trip coaches, transforming it into a thunderdome of aisles filled with trolleys and Trippers stockpiling oat milk and confused French morning shoppers. DT and I bought a frankly absurd amount of cheese – a Gouda, an Emmental, the world’s most immense package of Brie, and two Raclette packets. So we are spending our evenings (pre-sesh, at least) with that. We contemplate buying cigarettes purely to sell them to Londoners. There are flashing lights somewhere in the middle distance, from a club or a bar. We are curious about Grad Night, which we have booked for later in the week. DT: “It’s got to be full of people trying to relive their undergrad days.” We suspect it will be either the most fulfilling or the most disappointing night of our lives.