SARANDA, Albania — Five residents surround an American visitor on a beach here on the Albanian Riviera.
He is the first American they've met, and the topics for conversation are many. For one thing, an Albanian navy patrol boat is buzzing the beach: Occasionally a swimmer escapes from this tiny Communist corner of Europe by swimming to the Greek island of Corfu, only a few miles away.
But the young Albanians have something else in mind. "How much does a Harley-Davidson cost?" asks an English-speaker among them.
In an Albanian textile factory the manager explains to the same visitor his rush order for ski parkas for West Germany. An Albanian guide, Ilir Gjoni, is translating, but abruptly he stops and stares at the American. "Has anyone ever told you that you look like the actor Michael Gross in 'Family Ties'?"
Albania, the last Stalinist regime in Eastern Europe, has long followed its own xenophobic path. For decades the government has closed off travel outside the country. Only 14,000 foreign tourists were admitted last year. Probably fewer than 1,000 were Americans and virtually all of those have relatives among the country's 3.3 million people.
The national press, radio and television are strictly controlled, and it has been about 50 years since Albania had any trade or diplomatic relations with the United States. Yet a visitor finds that odd bits of Americana have somehow penetrated this isolationist screen, giving Albanians a strangely selective picture of life in the United States.
Albanians know that Earvin is Magic Johnson's first name, for example, and that Madonna is really Louise Ciccone. It is possible to find Coca-Cola, Apple computers, Levi's, even a Cadillac in Albania. But they also believe that professional wrestling is a genuinely competitive sport.
About one-third of Albanian high school students study English, which is the most common second language. But studying America is still a little like gazing at Mars for most Albanians. They can get an impression mostly from radio, television, and films, but America remains so distant that their knowledge is spotty at best.
A foreign diplomat in Tirana, Albania's capital, describes young Albanians as "infected" by capitalism. Students there proudly wear blue jeans and T-shirts advertising Pepsi, Alaska, San Francisco, Levi's and Sheraton Hotels.
One young engineer said his most valued possession is a "Manwalk"--not a Sony Walkman but a copy made in China that he bought for $20 at one of a chain of foreign goods stores the government has opened within the last year.
Where did he get $20? "In the street in front of the store," the engineer explained. The official exchange rate is 7 Albanian leks per $1, but the engineer paid 30 leks per dollar on the black market, so his Chinese toy cost him nearly a month's pay.
Some of the dollars and other foreign currencies come into Albania from relatives living abroad, although Albanians also sell gold at the national bank so they can buy goods at the luxury stores. The stores--similar to chains long established in the Soviet Union and the one-time Soviet satellite states of Eastern Europe--are one way the government gets hard currency while simultaneously providing a safety valve for some of the frustration that otherwise can build up in societies deprived of consumer goods.
The Tirana shop, measuring only about 15 feet by 50 feet, is dusty and dark. One recent morning people were crowded three deep around the counters. There were blue jeans from Turkey ($15), Juicy Fruit chewing gum (50 cents a pack), Czech motorcycles ($2,000) and Dutch color TVs ($330). Most are major purchases in a country where the average income is $930 a year.
The questions an American visitor hears reflect a fascination with Western lifestyles and the cost of supporting them.
"How much does it cost to buy a house?"
"How much is a color TV?"
"How much do you make?"
"What kind of car do you have?"
When an American responds that he owns a Honda, it sometimes causes surprise. "Honda makes cars too?" one resident exclaimed. Most Albanians know Honda only for its motorcycles.
The most prestigious thing an Albanian can own is a motorcycle--thus the beachcombers' question about Harley-Davidson. The lucky few are are most likely to buy Czech or East German machines, although Japanese motorcycles are considered more fashionable and a few can be seen in Tirana's streets.
Owning a car is impossibly expensive. The few on the road are all government-owned. Most are East European models or green Chinese jeeps.
But at Tirana's Kino movie studio, the boss, Viktor Gjika, offers his American guest the use of a 1956 robin's-egg-blue Cadillac convertible with electric windows and wide whitewall tires. The car was a gift from some Albanian-Americans to the late Communist dictator Enver Hoxha. Hoxha liked luxuries, but American capitalism was the wrong image, so he gave the Cadillac to the government, and now itis used in an occasional film.