Sunday, June 10, 2012

This morning, I’m sitting at the Pret a Manger on Cornmarket Street in Oxford with a cobbled together breakfast—a cup of fruit, a chocolate bar made with digestive biscuits, and a cappuccino. The man behind the counter surprised me by stenciling a Union Jack on top of the frothed milk in cocoa powder and I find myself staring at it, reluctant to disturb the pattern by taking a sip.

Actually, I’m thinking something through. I had planned to visit Blenheim Palace today, the grand country estate at which Sir Winston Churchill was born in 1874, but the sky overhead is threatening rain, and I’m tired and not much in the mood to walk to the train station in search of a bus to take me there. Instead, I check my notes and see that the Tourist Information Office offers a two-hour walking tour titled “The University and the City.” I glance down at my watch and see that there’s still time to buy a ticket, but first I need to visit an ATM to get cash.

On my way back to the TI on Broad Street, I find a Barclay’s branch with an automated teller on Turl and pop my card into the slot. There’s a sketchy guy pacing behind me, which makes me nervous, so when the money comes out I grab it quickly along with the receipt and tuck it into the back of my wallet. As I turn to go, a sense of horror washes over me. I look down and realize that my card wasn’t ejected. It’s been eaten by the machine and there’s nothing I can do about it, especially on a Sunday.

Feeling deflated, but determined not to let it spoil the day, I decide to join the tour as planned. Our guide’s name is Linda and she leads us first to the Divinity School to see a magnificent vaulted ceiling that dates from 1483. We also walk through the Exeter College chapel and the city’s covered market, which has been active since the late 18th century. We emerge onto High Street and continue on past Oriel College and Merton College, and along the way I take pictures of nearly every gargoyle and grotesque I see clinging merrily to the stone façades, but my heart isn’t in it. I’m counting Pounds Sterling in my head and wondering if I have enough to get me through all the way to Edinburgh. I use my credit card for hotels and most meals, so I’m sure to get by, but I feel vulnerable nevertheless.

After the tour, I walk morosely back to the hotel to call my bank and tell them what has happened. Then, as luck would have it, I pull out my wallet and find the card stuffed between the bills and the paper receipt. In haste and without conscious thought, I must have pulled it out and folded everything together. Suddenly, I feel stupid. Ridiculously, embarrassingly stupid. And old. Surely, this is the start of a slippery slope toward senility. But on the bright side, my ATM card has rematerialized before my very eyes and it has not yet been cancelled by the clerk on the phone. Thank the Lord!

With a new found spring in my step, I head back into the city intent on spending a lazy afternoon wandering the eccentric halls of the Pitt Rivers Museum, with its clutter of shrunken heads and powder horns and Japanese nesuke. Afterwards, I move on to the endless galleries of the Ashmolean, where it’s easy lose oneself among the Egyptian artifacts. But I find myself struck most by a view of Oxford painted in 1810 by Joseph Mallord William Turner because—cars and pavement notwithstanding—it looks nearly identical to the High Street that exists today.

My legs give out shortly after five and I’m starving, so I opt for an early dinner at Jamie’s Italian, a chain owned by the celebrity chef, Jamie Oliver. I order a plate of sweet roasted peppers on chickpea flatbread to start, and follow that with a massive bowl of Tagliatelle Bolognese, which disappears quickly and happily into my stomach. I need to keep up my energy for things to come.

It’s time to leave the literary home of Bilbo Baggins, Lucy Pevensie, and Alice Liddell. Other adventures await. I’m heading to Shakespeare country in the morning.

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