I’m walking home after work at around 9.30pm when I bump into my flatmate, Tom, on Via Marmorata. He’s standing in the street, looking slightly confused.
“What are you doing?
“I’m looking for a shop that sells candles. But nothing’s open at this time…”
It turns out that there’s been a power cut. Not just our flat, or our building, but the whole block. Part of me is excited – I’ve never experienced a proper power cut before – but I’m also disappointed that my cooking plans have been thwarted.
As we climb four flights of stairs in the dark, we pass our neighbour, the Actor (his motorino was the only one to survive the Motorino Inferno of 2016), and exchange greetings. I ask Tom if he’s talked to any of our other neighbours about the blackout. He hasn’t. But there’s nothing to say, really – we just have to wait it out.
Stumbling around in the flat, guided by the light of our phones, we find a few candles – a couple of scented candles from my room, and some dusty tealight candles in a kitchen drawer. I think of that episode from Friends where there’s a power cut, and their improbably spacious flat is filled with an improbable quantity of candles. Who has that many candles? It’s another example of their unrealistic luck and privilege – gigantic apartments, successful careers, a coffee shop sofa that’s always reserved for them, and 50 candles in storage.
Determined to cook, I light the scented candles in the kitchen and begin preparing something simple – spaghetti aglio olio e peperoncino (garlic, olive oil and chili). I step out on the balcony and see all the darkened windows of the neighbouring buildings – it’s slightly eerie, how it’s all pitch black. Then I hear the familiar miaow of the neighbours’ cat, Gedeone. This chubby Siamese is a regular visitor to our flat. In fact, I don’t think he understands that he doesn’t live here, as he seems to view it as an extension of his own home. Whenever he sees one of us on the balcony he wails, demanding to be let in.
I open the front door and Gedeone runs in, rubbing himself against my legs. He has a habit of walking between your legs as you try to walk, which is particularly perilous when you’re cooking in a candlelit kitchen. An accident waiting to happen. I shoo him away from the candles and the frying pan and get back to cooking. By this point the mixed smells of the candles (red berry and cinnamon, spiced apple) is overpowering, and slightly off-putting. When you’re eating pasta, you want to smell the pasta, not choke on the aroma of scented candles.
After dinner I go to my room and wonder how to pass the time. No electricity means no internet, no light to read, no hot water for a shower. My laptop is fully charged, my phone at around 50%. As sources of light, they’re not much good, but in this moment they seem like the last, fading remnants of civilisation.
From my bedroom window I can see the street lights, the windows of the enoteca illuminated. The blackout is only affecting my small corner of Testaccio – a dark island surrounded by street lights and bright windows. It’s dark here, but it’s only temporary, and elsewhere there’s still plenty of light.
I sometimes wonder what it would have been like in Ancient Rome. Back when night really meant darkness, when there were only candles and torches. Instead of brightly illuminated rooms, the occasional patch of flickering light.
21st century Rome may be much brighter than Ancient Rome, but there’s at least one place that would have been brighter in the past. After dark, the monumental ruins on the Palatine Hill practically disappear. Unlike the illuminated columns and archways of the Roman Forum, there are no lights here – just a vast, shadowy outline against the night sky. What would it have been like 2,000 years ago, when it was home to the emperors? I imagine rows of torches, banquet halls blazing, candles burning late into the night in the frescoed study of Augustus.
There are no lights now. Go to Via dei Cerchi – the street that divides Circo Massimo from the Palatine – late at night. The street is lined by lamps, but on either side you’re surrounded by the dark remains of Ancient Rome. It’s like walking down a brightly lit pier, in the middle of a black sea.
Back in Testaccio, peering at the dim screen of my computer, I become aware of the hall light miraculously turning on. The blackout is over. While I’m relieved to have electricity again, in a strange way, I enjoyed the blackout. A few hours of darkness puts things in perspective.
Time to stock up on candles…