TIRANA, ALBANIA -- Blankets, sacks of rice, vegetables and a television set take up the back of a rented truck. The youngest son, 18, has returned to Albania after a week visiting relatives across the Yugoslav border.
Albanian families divided since World War II now have tearful reunions and shopping sprees as relatives in Yugoslavia help them buy what they cannot find in Albania and get the purchases to the waiting trucks at the border.
Travel restrictions have been relaxed as Albania, Europe's poorest country, tries to narrow the divide between it and the rest of the continent. Mass protests and recent turmoil have forced the Communist regime, under President Ramiz Alia, to hasten change.
"It is stalemate in a chess game," said a diplomat based in Tirana. "President Alia will do everything he can to widen the range of possible moves -- without endangering his essential power."
Enver Hoxha, who founded Communist Albania after World War II, zealously imposed a policy of self-reliance, sealing off this tiny mountainous country from the rest of the continent. He died in 1985.
Television broke through Albania's isolation in 1989, as the country's 3.2 million people watched on Yugoslav and Italian TV the demise of communism in Eastern Europe. The collapse put pressure on Alia, Hoxha's handpicked successor, to reform the system or risk revolution.
Through foreign television, Albanians are exposed to mythical American wealth on programs such as "Dynasty."
"If we get democracy, people expect life to be like 'Dynasty,' " said Beni, a 28-year-old engineer. "No one realizes Albania will be poor for some time to come." Young people, lured by the glitter of Blake Carrington's riches, seem unaware of the difficulties of starting a new life in the West.
Albanians pay close attention to the outside world, especially to how others report on the country's situation. Officials and dissidents alike say they faithfully tune in to the bilbil or "nightingale," the Voice of America's Albanian service.
A group of teenagers approached Western journalists in Tirana's central Skanderbeg Square last weekend in search of dollars -- at the black market rate of 250 leks to $1, 25 times the official exchange rate.
They explained that they were trying to accumulate hard currency for travel abroad. The shaggy-haired youths were less interested in current political trends than in heavy-metal rock music. "Who do you like better, Iron Maiden or Deep Purple?" asked a 17-year-old named Arben.
Skanderbeg Square was decked in tinsel and lights. A huge portrait of Alia, displayed prominently atop one of the capital's two hotels for foreigners, bore a message wishing Tirana's residents a happy New Year.
Despite the holiday atmosphere, long lines wrapped around storefronts as people waited to buy food and drink. Shortages have become acute. A woman, about 70, said she had waited in line for nine hours to buy turkey, which is traditional for the New Year holiday. "When it was finally my turn, I discovered the turkey, at 250 leks, cost more than half my monthly wage."
But Tirana's palm trees and sunshine conflict with the stereotype of cold East European capitals under communism. The balmy Adriatic climate resembles Marseille more than Moscow.
Two statues, of Hoxha and Prince Skanderbeg, the 15th century national hero who united feuding Albanian tribes against the Ottoman Turks, dominate the central square.
Hoxha wanted to be cast as the modern Skanderbeg. Government officials still boast of Hoxha's achievements. "When Hoxha came to power the population was 85 percent illiterate," said one official here. "Now everyone can read."
Albania's malaria-infested swampland was drained. Life expectancy increased from 44 years in 1945 to 71 by 1980.
"At the end of World War II, the country was so backward. Albania was in the 18th century," said a U.S. businessman of Albanian origin, here to explore investment opportunities.
On the road south along the Adriatic Coast, horse-drawn wagons and flocks of sheep outnumber motor vehicles. Albania is one of the few countries where stagecoaches are still in use.
Policemen in blue Maoist uniforms, a remnant from the 1960s when Albania sided with China against the Soviet Union, routinely flag down cars with a whistle and a one-fisted Hoxhist salute. Foreigners need special documents to travel outside Tirana.
As Albania comes to terms with the economic gap separating it from its neighbors, intellectuals regard past mistakes with resentment.
All of the arable land in this mountainous country has been cultivated -- much is terraced, in imitation of Chinese rice paddies. But Gramoz Pashko, a leader of the newly organized opposition Democratic Party, said, "The land has been destroyed. Everything is eroding because terraces are meant for rice, but we've planted potatoes."