See the previous instalment, on the closing days of the Varsity Trip in Val Thorens.
There are probably four or five things you don’t want to hear on any bus journey. Examples: one: “If this thing catches fire, there’ll be one warning. Only one. Because I’m running off my arse.” Two: “Legally we can’t actually even give you a plaster, but we are required to carry a medical kit.” Three: “I think they just took off the wheels.” Four: “We need five or six guys.”
All of which I hear, more or less, during our journey from Val Thorens back to Oxford. Is the fourth a little unclear? The “five or six guys” are required to push the bus out of a rut. I volunteer, naturally, because at this point I think it might provide good material for an article. I am right. The first time we try to push the bus, we nearly break the bumper. The driver, a fast-speaking, foul-mouthed but generally good-natured guy, shouts at us, “Don’t push there! You’re going to break the fucking bus!”
(This driver is an interesting man. I never quite get his name, but while rumbling semi-awake somewhere east of Paris, I overhear a few things. He has an extraordinarily large dog. He does not trust Keir Starmer. He does not like Val Thorens. He prefers Andorra, because cigarettes and Grey Goose vodka are cheap there.)
As for not breaking the bus: apparently you have to put your hands further up, on the windshield. We push the bus out of the rut it has skidded into, in a French service station disconcertingly close to Val Thorens. Because of a snowstorm which caused one bus to leave the road (necessitating emergency evacuation, and leading someone with a dark sense of humour on our bus to play “The Edge of Glory” over their speakers; “I’m on the edge, the edge, the edge, the edge”, etc.), and two buses crashing, and a disaster getting our snow chains off the tires (meaning the wheels had to be entirely removed and replaced), we have gone about thirty miles in four hours. We do not know it yet, but the bus journey will last another twenty-one hours. The less said about that, the better. Apparently, at some point, the drivers lose the keys to the bus. Towards the end, they run out of hours, and our lead driver has to be bundled off with all his possessions to overnight at a B&B in Maidstone. He has several suitcases worth of stuff, including two umbrellas and several bottles of wine stored in the overhead racks.
Once again, our ‘luxury’ bus has no plug sockets and no Wi-Fi. The onboard toilet is also out of order. As we board, the driver advises that “the gentleman” get out and have a leak in the car park. As for “the young ladies”, he promises, extremely generously, to make a few stops wherever he can find proper facilities. In the end, this does not come to fruition (see four-hour initial delay). Everyone has to go in the car park behind the bus. Some other Trippers are filling up their water bottles from snowmelt. They are trying to find “prime snow”, which means somewhere people have not been pissing.
In general, the bus journey is a fascinating disaster. Because of the snowstorm, the buses cannot leave from the planned location, so the departure point is moved, fairly last-minute. The NUCO app reminds us of this but, in classic style, the NUCO app doesn’t actually provide you with phone notifications. Once again, I only find this out from a friend
The new departure point can only be reached by gondola, from the Cairn lift. I queue for an hour to reach the lift. I am alone, as both of my friends are (wisely) taking the train back home to Germany, taking a circuitous route through Paris to avoid PCR-requiring Switzerland. I board a gondola and we float down through languid darkness. Val Thorens dwindles, darkens, shrinks above us: a scene that would be perfect for a moody music video. We board the bus. As mentioned, we have our fair share of onboard disasters which I have mostly chosen to erase from my mind. In Calais, waiting ninety minutes for the ferry to arrive, two freshers behind me start practising TikTok dances. I wonder if I am from a different generation. Our ferry is a mildly dilapidated P&O cruiser, The Pride of Kent. My opinion of Kent is already low. The Pride does nothing to rescue it. The food court is closed, but the family lounge is open. There are no families here, just Varsity Trippers. Someone unplugs the Christmas tree to charge their iPhone.
We are blessed today, because Santa is in the family lounge, serving Starbucks coffee and hot snacks! “Hot snacks” means roughly two hundred shrink-wrapped pizzas, which each take three minutes to heat under the grill. The pizzas come plain (£7.95) or you can opt to have some sweaty-looking salami added (£8.95). The Santas are sixty-somethings who probably thought this would be an easy shift. For one hour, the family lounge kitchen becomes a scene of utter seething chaos. At some point the Santas take off their beards and hats; they are rushing round too much for them to be practical. They start shouting rather annoyedly when people don’t come to collect their pizzas immediately. At the end they mellow. They have cooked too many pizzas, so they start giving them out for free. I hope P&O don’t fire them.
Why this story? Because it illustrates, I think, what the Varsity Trip can do to a place. That’s the question: what becomes of Val Thorens, after Varsity?
There’s a little school in Val Thorens, tucked in-between the ski shops and hotels, which I point out to DT when we arrive. Some people do live up here, obviously, like Baptiste’s grandparents. It stands to reason that there must be a few families with children, too. The school is small, but Val Thorens is so filled by hotels and chalets that it must serve a wider local area. I wonder what that’s like: to have your bus journey to school every morning up those winding, mazing hairpins, although, if you live here, you are surely immune to the terror.
At one point in our holiday, I use Google Maps to try and find my way to an event location. But – logically – the Maps van came by in the summertime. The snow is gone. The piste is a long, hilly, sickened-looking meadow. The chalets and houses have a rustic quality, but they are very different to the Val Thorens I now vaguely know. The world is transformed. Baptiste is away in Italy or somewhere, hiking or cliff-diving or doing whatever ski instructors do in the off-season.
There’s something remarkable, I think, in the fact that the whole place just vanishes. Après will go on, for the tourists, but without the energy of the previous week. The clubs are closed by government order. There will be more people in the spas and the Irish pubs, and none in the silent disco. There will be families and old Swiss couples. There will be no college puffer jackets and no low chatter, hardly anyone starting on these slopes for the first times, calling encouragement to friends, spinning out in Klub Summit, vibing awkwardly in the smoking room.
On my way down to the Cairn lift, I put my headphones on and listen to Taylor Swift’s “All Too Well (10 Minute Version)”, because I am a walking cliché and I want something that feels sombre enough and will maybe make me cry.
Did I have a good time?
Was the experience profound?
Maybe only because I wrote about it as if it were.
Was the week perfect?
Does it have to be?
It is the third Tuesday in October. It is 7:59 am. You are sitting in the common room with half a dozen friends. A couple more are beaming in through Facetime. You have two browsers open, because you are afraid that Eduroam will die on you. Your friend has been before and has five, because he knows the way this game is played. You are wondering what NUCO is. You do not need to refresh your browser. The clock ticks over. It’s time to see your number.