June 1995, 12.30 pm.
I am in a hurry to get home, I am hot and loaded down with shopping bags. In the time it took to open the door and put the bags in the entrance hall, I hear the voice of “Cussu Larocca” behind me saying:
“Vinniru a tuppuliari a lu purtuni, dù foresteri, un masculu e nà fimmina. Avianu un pizzinu unni c’era scrittu tri nomi e la strata”.
(Two strangers, a man and a woman, came to knock on the door. They had a ticket with three names and a street on it.)
“What did you tell them?”
“Chi un c’era nuddru dintra. Tornanu chiù tardu”
(That there was nobody in the house. They will come back later).
At 16.30 the intercom rings. An unknown voice with a foreign accent says he is Anatoly Harleth from Boston and looks for Albertina.
Surprised but calm, I open the door to my unknown guests. After a while I find myself welcoming a strange couple: he tall, with reddish hair, eyes of an intense green and with a deep and serious gaze. She short, black hair, blue eyes like the sky and a nice smile. The man hinted at a greeting with a military bow and introduced himself:
“I am Anatoly Harleth, son of Hannah Harleth Galinova and grandson of Anatoly Galinovic. This is my wife Patricia Harleth.”
I looked at both without knowing what to say. Anatoly removed me from the embarrassment: “If you let us in I’ll explain everything”.
Heck, careless, I had forgotten the rules of hospitality. I showed the two to seats in the study, a little confused, but with a pleasant feeling inside my heart.
“This visit of yours, if I’m not mistaken, has distant roots, but I’m afraid I know very little about this story. I’d like to know more. “
“Yes sure. I came to Sciacca to visit the land where my mother was born and to meet the family that welcomed my grandparents who fled Russia.”
My mind immediately went back in time and I saw myself as a child with my grandmother who spoke to me about Russia, the Tsar and advised me to read the Russian authors, whom she loved.
I asked the guests if they would like a cold drink. Their ‘yes’ was a smile and a nod. A few minutes and I returned to the study with three glasses full of well-iced black cherry syrup.
I felt calm, with the arrival of Anatoly and Patricia perhaps it would complete a puzzle started thirty years earlier.
“Anatoly, why do you speak Italian so well?”
“My mother wanted me to study in an Italian school.”
“Do you enjoy syrup?”
“Anatoly tell me, I’m all ears”, and he began to speak with a polite smile and dreamy eyes.
“My grandparents Anatoly and Caterina fled Russia in April 1918. They first wandered around Europe, then someone took them to Tuscany where they stayed for two years. In the first months of 1921 they met other Russian exiles and went first to Naples and then, in November 1921 they arrived in Sicily, where an important family was waiting for them.
Grandfather was welcomed as a fencing teacher and grandmother as a piano teacher.
They remained with that family until 1924, when the head of the family had a financial collapse, my grandparents found themselves in difficulty again.
At that time they had met a lady, according to my grandmother, a great lady, cultured and understanding. In desperation, they decided to look for her and ask for help.
They arrived in Sciacca on the night of December 8, 1924 and thanks to a letter from the Abbess of the Benedictines of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglia they were welcomed by the nuns of the monastery of Santa Maria dell’Itria.
There they stayed two days, then went to the house of the good lady who helped them. In May 1925 they left Naples with the steamship Leonardo da Vinci for New York and on December 31 my mother was born. In 1930 they moved to Boston, but that’s a whole other story. “
“What Anatoly brought you here, what can I do for you?”
“Nothing. I came to say thank you. That thank you that my mother could not say to your grandmother. I came to smell the sea of Sciacca. In their pilgrimage, my grandparents met many people and saw many towns and countries, but in their hearts they always had Sciacca.
Grandma Caterina, when I was a child, told me about Sciacca, its sunsets, the wind blowing from Africa, the blue sea and its intense scent. I know its buildings, its streets, its courtyards.
In the family there was always talk of Sciacca. My grandfather, when he had the chance, bought all the books that told of that beloved town. Our Boston home is full of Sicilian pottery and crafts.
Our meals often have the flavour of your land: pasta with sardines, caponata, panelle, sardines in beccafico, ovine murina, cucchitelle and many good dishes that grandmother Caterina learned to cook in this house. Grandfather Anatoly told me about the sweat caves located in Mount Kronion, the miraculous waters of Molinelli, the holy water and the sulphurous water with a strong sulphur smell.
He told me the story of Sciacca, Luna and Perollo.
He told me about his meditation walks by the sea which reminded him of the afternoons along the Neva. He remembered the long climbs on Mount San Calogero as a pilgrimage.
One day, already many years ago, he said to me “I will never go back to Sciacca, I will not again smell the scent of that sea so go for me, that is a land blessed by God: the sea gives abundant fish, the land good fruit and men live in peace. In 1925 your grandmother and I wanted to stay, but we left for America to reunite with the few surviving relatives.”
Here, I came, I felt the scent of the sea, I saw the magical sunsets and I said a heartfelt thanks. “
I looked at Anatoly and barely managed to hold back my emotion.
Anatoly Harleth kept an oath made to his grandfather and grandmother and in 1995 came to visit places so dear to grandparents.
Sciacca: land blessed by God that remains in the heart of those who have lived in it even for a single day.