Lazy summer days on Black Sea
Sukhumi, USSR — There are the designer jeans and knit shirts, with Adidas brand the clear favorite. The music is an ear-splitting medley of tunes by such 1950s favorites as Bill Haley and Little Richard. Completing the picture, Jimi Hendrix and Elvis Presley stare down impassively from posters on the wall.
But there is something slightly amiss about this scene in a crowded seafront hangout.
Maybe it's those Adidas labels - a little too prominent and smeared around the edges, hinting they may be homemade silk-screened copies of the genuine article.
Or maybe it's the peculiar spelling of the signs over the tables, identifying the establishment as a ''muzzic bar.''
No matter. If it looks Western and sounds Western, it's enough to please the crowds here in Sukhumi, USSR.
Sukhumi is one of a string of resorts along the Black Sea coast here in the southwestern part of the Soviet Union, the region that plays host to hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens during their annual vacations.
Vacations are a serious affair in this country. They are subsidized by the state and average four weeks for each worker. Barred from vacationing in Western countries, most Soviet citizens must content themselves with group tours of other East-bloc states or, more likely, exploring the vast stretches of their own land.
And here, as in many other countries, the seacoasts are popular destinations - especially those along the Baltic and Black Seas. Sukhumi, in the Soviet republic of Georgia, is among the smaller of them and has a reputation as a place to go to avoid the crush of the masses at such beaches as Sochi, a highly popular Georgian beach. Soviets can avoid the crush, that is, if fortunate enough to get bookings.
Like the beaches at most Black Sea ports, those here are rocky: The stones range from pebble- to softball-size. For between 40 and 50 cents, vacationers can rent chairs or flat wooden platforms to obtain a more comfortable repose on the shore.
Soviet beach attire - although made in a relative handful of state factories - features bright colors and a variety of designs. However, some people do rub shoulders with people wearing identical garb. Three women on a short stretch of beach, for example, sported the same bright orange and royal purple creation. But about the only thing Soviet swimsuits seem to have in common is the challenge of covering ample Soviet frames. (The failures are best not written about.)
Only a few older men can be seen in what was, until recent years, considered the ultimate leisure wear: flannel pajamas worn on the beach.
Really stylish togs are saved for late afternoon and evening. Then, out come Levi labels (many of them apparently ersatz) and printed T-shirts.
The fashion rules: Writing should preferably be in English, and as prominent as possible. T-shirts advertising Western goods are especially favored, despite repeated criticism in the official press. Some of these are illegally manufactured here in the USSR. Some - such as a bright yellow T-shirt emblazoned with ''Alabama, heart of Dixie'' - appear to be genuine imports, though certainly not through official channels.
In between sizing up one another, the vacationers periodically stop for sunflower seeds sold by peasant women, purchase sport lottery tickets sold by a woman in austere Muslim garb, or buy champagne and ice cream sundaes from numerous state-run stands. (Puzzling over the choice of flavors is not a problem: Only chocolate and vanilla are available.) There are also restaurants offering the spicy local cuisine as well as tamer fare like shish kebab.
But standards here are, well, different from the West. Long delays, smudged glasses, and food-encrusted utensils are not uncommon in restaurants. Public facilities such as beach-side showers are a protozoologist's dream.
Some Finnish tourists, traveling here on a low-cost package tour, say they are ''appalled'' with the level of food, accommodation, and service.
But many Russians seem to think it's just fine.
''This is a good place,'' said a woman pistol-shooter, here for a long training session, as she sat at an open-air restaurant imbibing an orange-mango drink.
''It's not too bad,'' said a young teacher on the beach. ''But there are better places'' just before he plunged into the chill sea.
Indeed, there are.
Some of them are just up the beach, in fact, where various Communist Party and Soviet government divisions have their private seaside areas.
In fact, the class consciousness of this society is perhaps nowhere more evident than along the coastline. The narod (masses) elbow one another for space on some sections of the shore, while much longer and more pleasant stretches are reserved for those with influence, power, or connections.
There are also separate beaches for the Pioneers and Young Octobrists youth groups. These areas swarm with children wearing identical white or red hats.
And foreigners have a separate beach, too, presided over by a stern woman in a white overdress and broad-brimmed white hat.
She politely inquires of each person how he or she is enjoying their holiday. Anyone who replies with a Russian accent is banished. When some youths ignore her admonition to leave, they quickly find themselves eye to eye with a uniformed militiaman.
The official explanation for this segregation, according to the Intourist travel agency for foreigners, is that otherwise the beaches get too crowded for foreigners. That could be, but the policy also undeniably restricts contacts between foreigners and Soviet citizens - seemingly a major aim of the Communist Party government these days.
And there is an official explanation why almost every boat is taken out of the Sukhumi harbor every night and placed on shore - be it a dinghy or a sizable fishing boat. The official explanation is that unexpected winds or currents could damage them.
That, too, could be true. But the practice also prevents the boats from being used by would-be defectors to navigate southward to Turkey and on to the West.
Such measures most certainly do not restrain curiosity about, and acquisitiveness for, things Western.
''Do you have anything to sell?'' a young man along the promenade asks of two Americans.
The negative reply does not stop him from talking.
Sukhumi is not a bad place, he says, but not a very good one, either. There are not enough clubs, places to be entertained, or places to dance. Young people need more things to do, he says. Some hotels are good, some bad. In the lesser ones, you can stay three or four to a room, sometimes with people you don't know. In the best, you can have a room all to yourself.
And are we sure we don't have any jeans to sell?
''How much money do Americans make?'' a young couple on the beach asks.
The figures amaze them. Then, there are more questions - about housing, interest rates, unemployment, the cost of living.
An overlay of sand covers the stones on this stretch of shore, and the figures are written on it.
There are some quick calculations. Somehow, the figures don't look too bad.
But America is, after all, a world away. They gaze at the open stretches of the Black Sea and lie back on the warm sand.