Kapuscinski Encounters Capitalism

The Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, who died in January, published an article in the February 5 New Yorker on his first trip outside Poland. Kapuscinski became a legendary foreign correspondent and travel writer, but this was his first international trip, in 1955 at the age of 23. His reminiscences are a useful reminder of the differences between capitalism and communism. Flying into Rome, he recalls:

I was dumbstruck.

The entire length and breadth of the blackness over which we had been flying was now filled with light. It was an intense light, blinding, quivering, flickering. I had the impression of a liquid substance, like molten lava, glimmering down below, a sparkling surface that pulsated with brightness, expanding and contracting. The entire shining apparition was alive, full of movement, vibration, energy.

It was the first time in my life that I had seen an illuminated city. What few cities and towns I had known until then were depressingly dark. Shop windows never shone, there were no colorful advertisements, the street lamps had weak bulbs. Who needed lights, anyway? In the evenings, the streets were deserted, and one encountered few cars.

The next day his seatmate from the airplane took him shopping in Rome.

We started making the rounds of the shops, accompanied by Mario’s wife. For me, these were expeditions of discovery. Three things dazzled me in particular. First, that the stores were brimming with merchandise, the goods weighing down shelves and counters, spilling out in colorful streams onto sidewalks, streets, and squares. Second, that the salesladies did not sit, but stood looking at the entrance; it was strange that they stood in silence, rather than sitting and talking to one another. The third shock was that they answered the questions you asked them. They responded in complete sentences and then added, Grazie! Mario’s wife would ask about something and they would listen with sympathy and attention, inclining forward with such focus that it looked as if they were about to start a race.

Now remember, this is Italy in 1955, only 10 years after its military defeat. Apparently it took only a decade for communism to produce shortages, indolence, and poor customer relations in Poland, while capitalism produced abundance and customer service in post-Mussolini Italy. Not to mention the difference in nighttime lights that anticipated today’s famous image of the two Koreas at night.