TIRANA, Albania -- The little boy grabbed the reporter as he was trying to fight his way through the huge crowd. 'American,' he shouted wildly. 'We want (to be) just like America.'
'Give me sunglasses!'
The boy was no more than 11 years old. He came to hear a speech at the town's main square by Secretary of State James Baker -- the first top U.S. official ever to visit this Balkan nation of 3.3 million.
The crowd that jammed Skanderbeg Square numbered about 250,000. Tens of thousands of others lined roads and streets along his motorcade.
Many threw flowers at him.
Some kissed his automobile as it inched through the streets of Tirana.
'Extraordinarily moving,' Baker remarked of his seven-hour visit.
'It makes one extremely proud to be American,' he said Saturday night during the flight back to Washington. 'Because that outpouring of genuine affection and support ... (for) the symbol that America represents to people like this who have had nothing to hope for, for so very long.'
There was one sign that perhaps best summed up the Baker visit: 'Albania has been waiting for you for 50 years,' it said.
Communists ruled Albania with absolute power for more than 40 years, much of that time under hard-line leader Enver Hoxha, who died in 1985.
The country suffered in self-imposed isolation. Former Communists held on to power after multiparty elections in April and recently formed a coalition government with the opposition Democratic Party amid strikes and a deteriorating economy.
Baker received a letter from the Albania town of Berati that said, 'During this half century of Stalinist hell, our people have experienced deep pain. Nevertheless, they have always struggled, they have never been subdued and they have always hoped.'
In his speech to the crowd and to the Albanian National Assembly, the secretary of state hammered at one theme -- 'Freedom works.'
'You are with us and we are with you,' Baker said at the square. 'At last, you are free to think your own thoughts. At last, you are free to speak your own mind. At last, you are free to choose your own leaders. At last, you are free to worship in your own way.'
Onlookers, waving U.S. flags, chanted 'God Bless America' and 'Down with the (Communist) Party -- Albania is ours.'
There were hardly any automobiles in Tirana except for official cars and some trucks. In fact, until earlier this year it was illegal for the average Albanian to own a car -- even if he could afford it.
Most buildings in Tirana are shabby from years of neglect. Yet the city is stunningly beautiful with its surrounding mountains and the air is clean and virtually unpolluted.
'We were blessed with beautiful nature and stupid politicians,' a Tirana resident remarked. 'But there is hope now.'