The French and Their Pencil Sharpeners

Any of you ladies need your pencils sharpened?
After I’ve been to France, be on the look out for extra-sharp pencils over there. You may have heard that Paris is full of dull and broken pencils. All that will change once I get there and start using my French language skills.

Eshkish baw, aigee zay, mon crayon, see-voo play?

May I sharpen my pencil please?

I know this phrase because it was drilled into my head during an impromptu French lesson that my brother gave me during my mom’s card club one Friday night in about 1965.

My mom didn’t have a swinging social life, but she did belong to a card club, where once a month, eight ladies would get together and play 500 Bid, drink high balls, eat someone’s homemade dessert, laugh loudly and stay up really late. About once a year, my mom hosted the card club at our house. This was a big event for the family. We all helped shop for prizes and clean the house to get ready for the ladies. And then we had to hide away in a bedroom so we didn’t bother them during the actual card club.

I think my mom actually hid us away because one of the card club ladies had a filthy mouth. She was super-religious Catholic and otherwise very sweet (in all of her Christmas cards, she would double-, triple- and quadruple-underline all the words in the pre-printed message that were either “God” or “love” or “blessing”), but she cursed like a sailor. I used to try to stay up as late as possible, straining to hear what she was going to say next, since it usually got more foul and interesting as the night wore on.

One year, my mom arranged with my brother, Jeff, to entertain us upstairs during club. He must’ve been taking French that year, because he decided to use our sequestered evening to teach us how to say May I sharpen my pencil please in French.

Eshkish baw, aigee zay, mon crayon, see-voo play?

I can’t remember how to say much of anything in the three foreign languages I studied, but I can still remember how to ask permission to sharpen a pencil in French.

It’s wrong, of course. According to the online English-to-French translator, May I sharpen my pencil please is Peux j'aiguiser mon crayon s'il vous plaît.  How I got eshkish baw out of peux, I have no idea. The French language may have changed since the '60s. Or Jeff might have missed a class or two, or we all got distracted by the swearing coming from downstairs.

I think Jeff would have been a fine foreign language teacher. I remembered the phrase, albeit flawed, for more than 40 years.

It’s funny how high school foreign language classes teach you how to ask permission to use school supplies, but don’t teach you how to say, “My hotel room is on fire” or “How much for the Tyelonol Extra Strength?” or other phrases that might be more useful if you were actually in a French-speaking country. It’s as if the writers of the foreign language textbooks and curriculum were too lazy to venture outside their classrooms and just looked around and decided to use what was at hand. Thus, high school kids know the words for chalkboard, eraser, pencil, desk and ruler, which I’m guessing will not be very useful at all during my trip to France.

I will try to make it useful, though. I’m planning on sharpening a couple of pencils while I’m in Paris. Go ahead, be jealous.

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