I sometimes promise to stop retelling the story of my one psychic experience, but it’s a promise I occasionally break. Now, in light of my being in medieval Dubrovnik and in the shadow of an article in the Times last week, I’ll tell it at least one more time.
In 1971, my parents, sister, and I made our one and only trip to Europe together. Susanna was already in England, so she joined us in Madrid. On a side trip, we took the train to Toledo, that marvelous little city defended by the Tagus River and the steep mountainside rising from the river. We had visited El Greco’s house, which overlooks the river, but we had not yet plunged into the narrow, twisting, rising and falling, further narrowing streets of the city. Elizabeth wanted to see the cathedral. One might think that, in so small a mountain town, the cathedral, one of the largest in Europe, would be set at the top of the town. At worst, its steeple would be visible from any vantage point. But from no angle, no street corner, no passageway was there a sign of so great a monument. The streets are too narrow, the buildings too tall, the angles too severe for the eye to gain purchase.
I said, “This way,” and set off around a corner, up a rise, down a slope, around another corner, through an alley that looked, for all the world, like a cul de sac, all without question or perplexity. Interestingly, my family accepted my sense of directionless direction and followed along until, rounding one last corner, down hill from any prominent height, we encountered the looming cathedral.
Obviously, I had been there before and knew the place intimately.
The Times article recounts Doreen Carvajal’s experience in Spain, her effort to track down the mysterious sense of Jewishness that nagged at her self-identity despite her life-long Christian upbringing. Her investigation turned her to ‘epigenetics,’ the idea that our genes preserve memories of past generations, wholly independent of our individual experience. Indeed, the genes, this notion argues, remember the lives of our ancestors, and these memories directly affect our lives as individuals. Locke’s tabula rasa turns out to be a palimpsest.
We accept this notion in nature: as Carvajal reminds us, Monarch butterflies are genetically guided on the long migration from Mexico to Canada, a journey that needs three generations to complete, so no Monarch has ever seen both countries. Yet, the migration prospers. Baby chicks who have never seen a chicken hawk will flee the silhouette of that predator but not the projected image of non-threatening birds.
I’m happy to accept epigenetics. I’m happy to accept my father’s story of our family history: my ancestors may have been among those Jews banished from Spain in the balmy years of Columbus, Ferdinand, and Isabella. (The cathedral, begun in 1226, was within a year of completion when Toledo’s Jews and Moors were exiled.) As Bernie told the tale, the clan fled south, crossed into northern Africa, made its way east, temporarily coming to rest in Istanbul. Forced to move on once more, the family crossed into modern day Georgia where they were known as the people from Istanbul, the Istanbulers, and, eventually, the Stamblers.
Perhaps epigenetics are responsible for my general and persistent love of and comfort in walled medieval cities: York, Vence, San Gimignano, Siena, Volterra, and now Dubrovnik. I find my way through them with relative ease; I understand them in an implicitly domestic way. But only Toledo, shall we say, knew me.
Perhaps this trip, returning to Turkey, intent on knowing Istanbul more fully is the epigenetic extension of a Toledan memory. That would please me.
In the meantime—Dubrovnik.