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.
The few images of America that come through the official media are carefully controlled.
Occasionally an American film is telecast in English with Albanian subtitles. But the movie must meet the Albanian government's approval, which means any nudity is cut and usually the story deals with the darker side of American life or with imperialism.
Some recent samples: "Under Fire," the Gene Hackman film about a newsman killed in Nicaragua; "Missing," the Jack Lemmon movie set in Chile around the time of the Allende coup, and "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" the Jane Fonda character study set at a Depression-era marathon dance.
Albania has been making films for about 30 years, but movie directors still use American films as an educational tool. Kino Studio produces 14 feature films, 18 documentaries and 16 cartoons a year on a 14-million lek budget (about $2 million), according to studio chief Gjika. He says the old Marlon Brando film "Viva Zapata" is required viewing. "Our filmmakers grow up on this film. Brando controls himself so well."
The average Albanian feature film costs about $90,000, and it shows: Gjika says his directors use East German color film and concedes that the "quality is desiring." Occasionally the studio uses Kodak film bought in France "for scenes with special lighting. But it's expensive."
Enver Derhemi, head of the cartoon department, says he tapes Walt Disney, Bugs Bunny and Tom and Jerry cartoons from Italian TV. The Albanians have been producing cartoons since 1975, and "Walt Disney is like a school for us," he says. "We've learned the language of animation from him."
Many residents listen to short-wave radio broadcasts by the Voice of America, British Broadcasting Corp. and other stations.
Young people love rock and roll but they don't get it from Albanian radio. The occasional American song heard on Albanian stations, such as "When a Man Loves a Woman," are instrumentals and sound like Muzak, so the young tune in foreign stations and can talk at length about Tina Turner, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and Madonna.
Because original cassettes or phonograph records of Western rock music are not for sale in Albania, friends get together with a dual-cassette recorder (price: 3,500 leks, or about half a year's salary), and blank tape cassettes (100 leks on the black market) to record their own from foreign broadcasts.
The government's skimpy TV offerings also drive Albanians to search for Western alternatives.
Homemade Albanian antennas pull in Italian and Yugoslav TV. In the south, Albanians can pick up Cable News Network from Corfu.
Gjoni, the Albanian guide, used to spend weekends in Kruje, a medieval castle city 2,000 feet up in the mountains near the Adriatic Sea, where it's possible to receive clear signals from 10 Italian TV stations, including several pay channels, and two Yugoslavian stations. "I stayed 24 hours a day watching films," Gjoni said.
He talked about Bruce Willis, Charles Bronson and Paul Newman and asked, "Is Elizabeth Taylor all right?" Gjoni is one of the few Albanians with access to a VCR; he has both a Betamax and a VHS in his office.
The rock music channel MTV, broadcast from Yugoslavia, is popular with young people. Basketball is another favorite American export. Italian television broadcasts NBA games, and one Albanian said authoritatively: "Magic Johnson is No. 1. Michael Jordan is No. 2." Another basketball aficionado insisted, "The Harlem Globetrotters are the best."
The Albanian Establishment is not entirely pleased with all these uncontrolled foreign images. Hamit Beqja, psychology professor at the lone Albanian university, says foreign TV is "light, sugary, with not much substance, like lemonade" and adds, "Foreign TV has violence and sex. These are contradictions with our traditions."
Albanians see Italian commercials for Jacuzzis while most cannot even buy toilet paper. They see Madonna dancing in black underwear while few Albanian women even use makeup, couples avoid kissing in public and many women are virgins when they are engaged.
Then there is the trauma of Hulk Hogan and "catch," as the Albanian beachcombers call professional wrestling.
When their American visitor explained that most of his countrymen consider pro wrestling to be about as free-form as a three-act play, one of the Albanians slapped a hand to his head. "This is very upsetting!" he said. "How can there be a winner and a loser?"
Land of Limits and Isolation
Albania at a Glance Population: 3.3 million Economy: Industries include chemical fertilizer, textiles. Chief crops are corn, wheat, cotton, potatoes, tobacco, citrus fruits, grapes. Government: Communist. The People's Assembly, a single-chamber legislature of 250 deputies, meets a few days a year, essentially to ratify actions taken in its name by the chairman of the Assembly, Ramiz Alia.