Did you just see a monk walking down the street? Only in Oxford. A boy in a tailcoat flagellating a homeless person? Only in Oxford. Maybe you overheard someone talking about Shakespeare in the pub? Only in Oxford!
This statement is used by Oxford students to greet events perceived to reinforce stereotypes. It is clichÃ©d and almost universally untrue. However, when you are watching an inebriated individual simultaneously babble about the Jesuits and look clumsily behind furniture mumbling ‘a la recherche de whisky perdu’, it is difficult not to want to yell it triumphantly. Only in Oxford!
This happened at the Chalet des Anglais, which isn’t actually in Oxford. It is buried in the French Alps on the Mont Blanc Massif. It is co-owned by New College, Univ and Balliol. It was built in 1865, though was burnt down and rebuilt in 1906. Each college sends two separate ‘reading parties’ (only in Oxford…) during the summer vacation. Former visitors have included Harold MacMillan and the writer Cyril Connolly. We were a diverse bunch, our party consisting of seven undergraduates, eight graduates, a tutor and a former fellow. I went on the first New College trip to the Alp (for we were definitely on the Alp) for ten days in July, and it was lovely.
The chalet has no electricity, meaning it has provided a remarkably consistent experience over the years as borders and technologies have shifted around it. Were it not for the lack of electricity and regional accents, the concept would be a little like Big Brother. Having no power is striking in how little you notice it after a few days. A fridge and a tempestuous oven are powered by gas. Light is provided by a combination of gas lamps, candles, torches and stars.
Stars are something I certainly knew to exist before, and something I’d heavily suspected to be quite a big deal. Yet somehow I’d never quite got round to lying on my back for an hour on a pitch black night somewhere remote and taking it all in. Shooters and all. It is difficult to appreciate stars beneath the cuddly light pollution blanket I’ve always slept under, but on the Alp all excuses vanish before the lucid night sky.
As with reading, chaletites are obliged to walk only as much as they like. Some stomped off on Karl Bushby-esque treks from sunrise to sunset, while others occasionally pootled to the waterfall at the end of the path. My most arduous was to the profoundly beautiful ‘Mer de Glace’ glacier, at the foot of which was a brilliantly green snowmelt lake in the middle of vast rocky basin. Pushing on, via the brilliantly named village of Bionnassay, we extended this into a long circular hike. We liked it, so we put a ring on it. We were also periodically obliged to travel down the Alp by foot and telecabine to fetch supplies from the village of Les Houches.
Chaletites also had practical commitments like cleaning up, chopping firewood and cooking. Cooking for seventeen people with no electricity is a formidable task. The main aim is ‘hearty’, and hearty and beyond is what was managed most of the time. The experience of regularly eating a three course meal with wine in adult company was novel and salubrious.
It is perhaps easy, especially for a first year, to lose sight of just how diverse the intellectual interests of Oxford students and tutors are. In an eight week term people are so preoccupied with their own work that they have little time to talk to others about theirs, and understandably people wish to spend their free time on matters less academic. The chalet afforded an awful lot of talking time with people I was unlikely to come into contact with in Oxford under ordinary circumstances. The trip is open to the whole college, and places are filled on an entirely first come first served basis. On the Alp were a couple of my good friends, but also several people I hadn’t met before. I was able to chat to an American D.Phil student about the ethical justifications for banning violent video games in the States, an English tutor about the logical compromises made by early Creationists, and a Montaigne scholar about the translation of his essays from French to English. (I couldn’t quite bring myself to call this article ‘Montaigne Dans Les Montagnes’.)
An occasional spell outside the clutches of modern technology but without very much else to do is something I’d highly recommend, both for fun and for the general omphaloskepsis that comes of it. It forces you into doing things which put long term satisfaction ahead of short term gratification. It can take rather a lot of discipline to read difficult books, yet this is an experience ultimately far more rewarding than reading blogs and Facebook news feeds. The chalet experience made me realise that being raised on a diet of Grand Theft Auto and YouTube has eroded any attention span I may once have had. To have nothing but trees and books for a while can help to wrestle the mind back from the sensory overload of modern life just a bit. Give it a go. Not only on the Alp, but anywhere you can find.