Column: In the Shadow of the Pantheon

The night is warm. The press and bustle of the daytime throng has thinned. The massive, majestic hulk of the Pantheon presides over the piazza, its presence a surreal remnant of ancient Rome. At Ristorante Ritorno al Passato – Return to the Past – Alo has welcomed us to the table we have adopted as our own.

Dave and I have been in Rome for a week, drawn by a reunion with college friends and our love of this city. On our first night here, we ate dinner at this restaurant, one of the open-air establishments that circle the piazza. Attracted by the friendliness of the owner, Andrea, and the two servers, Camelia and Alo, we have returned for a meal or glass of limoncello every night before heading back to our hotel.

Andrea kindly indulges my flawed Italian and speaks slowly, articulating each word so I can understand him. To our amazement, we learned he is a doctor, the director of an assisted living facility as well as part owner of this restaurant. He tells us he and his servers make more money at the restaurant than he does in his day job. It seems the issue of skewed values as reflected in salaries is not unique to the U.S.

Camelia hails from Romania, but like so many servers here, speaks several languages, and her English is perfect. On slow nights, she has told us of her mother’s grace as she fought cancer before passing a year ago. Having not seen her sister since Christmas, Camelia is giddy because Corinna arrives in a few days. “We are all that’s left now. We have only each other.” And soon, they are going to Mykonos for a week.

Camelia has brought us small, stemmed glasses of icy limoncello. I glance at Dave as he leans back in his chair and gazes at the Pantheon, a serene baby-sloth smile on his face. It is an expression I cherish, especially when beamed my way. This evening, it encompasses everything within and around us. The ancient city, re-connection with old friends, the joy of new friends, and the fact that we are here together. The years and months preceding this trip held anxiety and obstacles – travel complications, Covid, creaky knees, world events – and yet, we are here.

A stocky, swarthy man appears at our table and says, “You buy?” With a hopeful grin, he places a stuffed green cactus with bulging eyes on the table. He flips a switch and it begins gyrating to a tinny tune. The perfect souvenir of a trip to Rome! What would Emperor Hadrian, the Pantheon’s builder, make of this absurd creature?

We shake our heads no, not interested. But perhaps we’d like a wiggling cat? A stuffed bull? The vendor makes another pitch and sends the bull hopping across our table. Who would want these weird items? Apparently, the man seated at an adjacent restaurant. We note he has purchased both a bull and a cactus.

Since our sabbatical in 2005, it has been our mantra to let no one be invisible. So, on this occasion, as he always does, Dave asks the vendor where he’s from. Like Alo, the vendor is from Bangladesh, and we ask about his family’s well-being having heard of the floods devastating his country. He shakes his head sorrowfully, says, “Is very bad,” and moves on in search of those who might want a dancing cactus.

Dave and I are wearing brightly beaded bracelets from another vendor, Ibrahim from Senegal. We’ve encountered him several times, and by now, greet him by name. We have purchased some wooden bowls, crafted, he claims, by his family, and in thanks, he gave us the bracelets. I wonder if they broadcast to all that we are suckers, possible buyers, but no matter, we like the bracelets and the bowls.

The piazza also hosts vendors who sell roses, glittery balloons, and neon UFO’s that sail into the sky, high as the Pantheon’s peaked pediment. What a bizarre, marvelous juxtaposition of the modern against the ancient, and as we follow their path into the darkness, we know Lexi, Paul, and Eleanor, our grandchildren, would love them.

Having seen a graying matron about my age purchase and successfully launch a UFO, I approach the vendor and ask the price. “5 euros,” he says.

Hmm. No. Cool as they are, the UFOs are cheap plastic and won’t last long. “3,” I offer.

He says, “4.”

I stand firm, and for 3 euros, I own a UFO.

The matron is sitting with her family at a table nearby, and she gives me a thumbs up. “You inspired me,” I say. “It looked like your launch went higher than those of the rest of your family.” She nods modestly, and those around the table laugh and agree. Their wine glasses are half full, their plates empty. Life is good.

“Try it!” she said.

“No, I feel self-conscious.”

“You can do it!” a friendly chorus rings out.

“What’s your name?” asks a handsome young man at the table, and I tell him.

Water splashes in the fountain as a marble dolphin sprays a cascade. Utensils clatter as diners at the restaurants enjoy their pasta, aromatic with fresh basil and garlic. Lights cast a shining path across the cobblestones as the matron’s family members call out, “We’re here for you! Go Lea! Go Lea!”

How can I not? I thread the rubber band around a small hook and adjust the wings of the fragile toy. In the shadow of the Pantheon, to the cheers of strangers, I pull back on a rubber band and launch a tiny, purple, pinpoint of light into the sky.

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