My family and I ended up in Las Vegas unexpectantly for Thanksgiving. It was a far cry from our usual celebration in Death Valley National Park where we gather annually to swim in the hot pool, play games, climb the sand dunes, and eat Chex Mix we brought from home, made with extra butter. Plus, it was cold. Some of the coldest weather on record for that time of year in Vegas. We ate dinner at my mother’s country club where a chilly breeze bit at the back of our necks each time the massive front doors were opened by new arrivals.
Thanksgiving evening, I found myself at the house of a friend of my mother’s for another round of dessert. We “oohed” and “ahhed” at the massive skyline view of Vegas from their back window, and the artful, modern decor including a red couch in the living room, blown glass hanging lamps, and a fake white Christmas tree dotted with blue ornaments. Both families did their best to create conversation and interest in each other, but all of us were bloated with food and exhausted from the effort just to arrive at the holiday, and the majority of the party ended up in the TV room on the baby blue leather couch watching a rerun of a children’s movie.
The only person in the room who seemed unaffected by the post-Thanksgiving stupor was a thin young man with blond hair and bright eyes wearing a short-sleeved, green t-shirt. I had no idea who this boy was or how he was connected to the family until I found myself sitting at the dining room table (the couch was full) across from him. I discovered that his connection was tenuous. Our hostess, head of the University of Nevada Las Vegas Journalism Department, had spent the previous year in Latvia on a Fulbright Scholarship. Rudi, the green-shirted boy, was a 22-year-old Latvian student studying computer science at UNLV. I took a sip of my tea. Not especially acrobatic in social small talk at the best of times, I wondered how in the world to gracefully remove myself from a potential conversation.
But Rudi watched me with eager anticipation, no cup of tea, dessert plate, or cell phone before him as a distraction. I was tired, mentally and physically–after two nights sharing a small bed with my daughters who spread like puppies in their sleep–but in Rudi I detected a longing that pained my heart and so I began asking him about his life here in America. He told me about his classes and the challenges of his commute, but I soon realized that he was most hungry to talk about his homeland.
Our hostess prompted Rudi to tell me about his grandmother. He hesitated, and then with a hardly detectable accent (he had studied English in school along with Russian and “the Romantic Languages”), Rudi told me how at the age of fourteen, his grandmother was picked up at school by the Russian authorities and taken to a work camp in Siberia. Her parents were not informed of her whereabouts; she just didn’t come home that afternoon. I stole a glance at the matching blond heads of my girls sitting on the couch in the other room, the oldest only a handful of years away from fourteen.
Apparently, this type of sudden deportation was not unusual in the late 1940s as Russia gobbled up satellite states to build a powerful Cold War USSR. (Later research revealed that an estimated 150,000 people were deported from Latvia during this time period. A huge number considering that Latvia is smaller geographically than the state of Iowa and the current population hovers around 2 million people.) Rudi’s grandmother was luckier than most as her sister was picked up with her so she had some familial comfort in her banishment. When I asked how long Rudi’s grandmother was in Siberia, Rudi again hesitated and said he didn’t know. I sensed that although his grandmother’s experience was not uncommon for her generation of Latvians, that her history was not discussed openly or often.
Emotions of pride, carefully controlled frustration, and homesickness played across Rudi’s face as the conversation flipped back and forth between tales of Latvia today, which gained her independence in 1991 when Rudi was just three, to Latvia under Russian rule. Previously ignorant regarding Latvian history or geography, I learned from Rudi that during the period of Soviet rule, such a large number of Latvian citizens were removed from the country that the population dwindled precariously. Half a million Russians were brought in to take over the property and lives of the missing Latvians. Utilitarian Russian architecture and collective cement block farms were thrown up throughout the lush Latvian countryside. Luckily, Russia lacked the resources to exploit all its satellite countries, so the deep forests of Latvia were left untouched and pristine. Speaking Latvian was banned under Russian rule and offenders were forced to wear a necklace of rotting potato slices to show they were peasants.
Today, Latvian is the official language and fluency is required to achieve employment despite the fact that many Latvians and the large population of second and third generation Russian imports don’t speak anything but Russian. Latvian culture is emphasized in schools to the degree that all students must sing and play an instrument. Folk music is held in high esteem and Rudi told me about an annual folk music parade held in the streets of Riga, the capital, with so much excitement and enthusiasm you’d think he were describing an outdoor rock concert. After flourishing briefly in the new millennium, Latvia is currently crippled by economic crisis, governmental corruption, and a 21 percent tax on all purchases including food. Rudi is only faintly hopeful that he will be able to find work in Latvia when he completes his studies.
Eventually, we worked our way back to Rudi’s grandmother, who is still alive and in her 80s. During a brief period after achieving independence, Latvians, with the proper papers of proof, were able to reclaim their property that had been taken from them almost 50 years previously. Rudi’s grandmother had the necessary papers and lives on her claim to this day. She has no running water, and only an outdoor toilet. She uses a nearby sauna to bathe. I shivered just imagining winter jaunts to the outhouse, but for her, no running water must be a small price to pay for ownership and freedom after being stripped of her adolescence and forced to work in a labor camp.
My final question to Rudi, before the movie was over and the crowd slowly moved towards the door, was to ask what he liked best and least about America. He wrinkled his nose and said with great distaste that he disliked how dirty his roommates were. This, to me, was a funny, finicky, little dislike when there is so much to berate about America starting with the relentless chorus of advertisements for Black Friday and stores that open at 3 a.m. so Americans, in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, can go spend more money that they don’t have.
But I was even more surprised when Rudi told me, eyes shining, that what he loved most about America were the big-sized drinks you could buy. “You can get a big drink, for hardly any money, and keep filling it up.” This amazed him. The hostess and I looked at each other, our faces each expressing baffled disappointment. It struck me as ironic that upon my arrival, the hostess had shown me the little beverage spoons she’d brought back from her sabbatical, stating that she “loved the tiny cups of coffee they served in the afternoon. They were perfect, just the right amount.” We shook our heads and smiled politely at Rudi.
The next day I drove five hours northwest, away from the big city with the sales and lights and traffic to the small town where we live. As the high desert ringed with mountains stretched before me, I thought of Rudi. I imagined him navigating the adventure of being an exchange student in a big, busy American city. I wanted to cup my hands around his eager spirit, proud Latvian nationalism, his yearning for home, his willingness to fling himself into a new culture just as his young country flings herself into the future. I wanted to stitch his optimism and understanding of the underbelly of history into my joints.
I looked out the window at the passing scenery of Death Valley National Park. The vast sky, the distant sand dunes, the deep ancient silence that penetrated the land. And I had to smile, because I finally got Rudi’s love of American Big Gulps. We, like it or not, are a land of plenty. Plenty of soda, plenty of sales, plenty of debt. But also, plenty of ideas, plenty of preserved space that stretches across our country, and plenty of freedom to complain in voice and print, love whom we choose, invent what we desire, and holler out what we believe.
I stuck my camera out the window and at seventy miles an hour took a picture of the big and plentiful American sky. A photograph to remember Rudi from Latvia and the bigness of my American life.