Last week my former graduate student Ilya Berdnikov stopped by Oxford for a visit. Although the weather was a bit inclement, I wanted to show him the sights of the city of dreaming spires. (My tour of Oxford is getting pretty polished --- you can see some of the highlights from previous tours here and here). Undeterred by the weather, we dressed in foul weather gear – rain jacket, umbrella, boots – and started on our way.
One key part of the tour is to go to the top of the tower of the Church of the Virgin St. Mary. On the way into the church tower, you walk through the church itself. As luck would have it, a choir was practicing there, so we stopped to listen. Recognizing the conductor and some of the singers, I realized it was the Somerville college choir. (They did sound very nice in that space!) Bells should have gone off in my head at that point, but alas, they did not. I should have wondered why the Somerville choir was practicing in that church on that particular day.
We climbed up to the top of the tower and looked at the scenery for quite a while. The weather was perhaps starting to clear. It was cold and a bit drizzling but not uncomfortable up at the top. I mulled over “is that building Lincoln college, or is it that building?”, and pondered other geographical mysteries for quite some time. Then we started the long descent down.
As we neared the bottom we could hear the organ playing in the church. (I very much like organ music). The organ sounded a bit like a funeral precession. Loud bells should have been ringing in my head at this point, but alas… they still did not.
I opened the door to exit from the tower into the church and immediately stepped into a precession of my colleagues –- the Fellows of Somerville college –- coming into the church for a memorial service which I was supposed to be attending. The service was for the college’s former principal (and well known british spy) Baroness Daphne Park (you can read a very interesting obit here). All of the other Fellows of the college were wearing academic robes and black tie. I was dressed in my blue raincoat and hiking boots. I immediately turned bright red, turned around and jumped back into the church tower and closed the door behind me to hide in shame. I had completely forgotten that the memorial service was being held on that particular day. You might think that the choir and the organ music would have jogged my brain, but alas…
Anyway, we hid in the church tower for a moment trying to decide what to do next. It turns out that there is a back exit from the church tower into the café next door. Unfortunately, the exit door was locked, but I bashed on the door and pleaded with the café workers until they got a key and let me out through the escape hatch. But (alas), on the way out, I was caught by another fellow of the college who had been late for the precession (but was at least appropriately dressed) and who appeared to be trying to sneak into the church in exactly the same way I was sneaking out.
I’m not sure how many of the college fellows actually saw my faux-pas. I’m certain a few did. Fortunately, I think can get away with a few blunders like this one just for being an American.