Obies Using Languages: Oliver Okun ’17

Oliver Okun is a Russian major, Philosophy minor. He spent a summer and two semesters in Paris, France, during the 2015-2016 school year.

Through the exchange program called CUPA I studied in Paris from the Summer of 2015 through to the end of the Spring semester of 2016. Some people thought I was crazy because my plan was to study philosophy in French at the Sorbonne after only having taken two semesters of French. In retrospect it was an ambitious plan, but at the time I wasn’t going to let anything get in the way of my desire to study philosophy where it had been taught since the 13th century. To compensate for my lack of training I devised a very specific plan; I was going to live with a host family for the summer to improve my French-language skills before moving in with French students when university classes began in September. In June 2015 my parents took me to the airport and off I went to France for a year. As I waited for my flight I received an email from my French host father. I had to look up some of the French words in the email, as my vocabulary at the time was quite small. My host father Frédéric, an old artist, said that he would be waiting for me in the airport in a bright red coat and a zebra skin patterned, wide-brimmed fedora. Instead of writing the equivalent of, “sincerely” or “see you soon” to close the email Frédéric wrote, “artistiquement” (artistically). I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.

I arrived at the airport and spotted Frédéric. His description of himself was perfect, except that he forgot to mention his long leather cowboy boots, and his ebony walking cane. Frédéric greeted me with a low bow, a tip of the hat, and a prolonged, “bienvenue à Paris”. For the rest of the summer, just about every night, Fredéric would cook a three course meal for his girlfriend from Burkina Faso, Missaratou, and I. We would eat in their garden, surrounded by Frédéric’s art, enjoying the warm Parisian summer. We would talk for about an hour, then Missaratou would go get ready for bed. Frédéric and I would continue to chat late into the night, drinking what was always a cheap, organic red wine from the Languedoc region of France. At first I couldn’t say much in French, so Frédéric would do more of the talking and I would just listen. He would talk to me about what he learned from a lifetime of keenly observing people and things, and recreating them in his art. He had an extreme reverence for life, and a natural love for people. During the entirety of my stay with Frederic I had this strange feeling that I was somehow becoming a better person. I found that he had fostered within me this same extreme reverence for life. He would speak with a delicate urgency in his voice. It seemed that it was very important to him that I understood his words. Because I wanted to understand Frédéric so badly, my French naturally grew in leaps and bounds. My time with Frédéric and Missaratou eventually came to end as Fall began in Paris. One week after I moved out my program informed me that Frédéric had peacefully died in his sleep. I attended his funeral where, thanks to my time with Frédéric, I was able to express, in French, what the last few months of this man’s life meant to me. One of the most important skills that language learners acquire is mimicry. My French really began to take shape as I observed and mimicked Frédéric. While Frédéric may be gone, I still find traces of his mannerisms, his phrasing and his preferred words in the way I speak French today.

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