Author Archives: Robert Paris Riger

About Robert Paris Riger

Strive to be mix of practical, detail driven and visionary leader. My Google+

Poisson D’Avril – Learn French

What helps make learning a foreign language possible at first is the cognates, the words or phrases that are similar to or the same as words in English.  Poisson D'Avril - Learn FrenchAccording to Paul Pimsleur, while French was never actually joined with English, historical cross-pollination means that American newcomers to French can guess the meaning of 30% or more of a random list of words.    (Paul Pimsleur, How to Learn a Foreign Language, 2013, p. 11) Poisson D'Avril - Learn French

What is fishy, however, is when the language you are learning seems arbitrary, when the cognates don’t quite match.   An early memory of one such fishy linguistic misnomer is poisson rouge, the French term for a goldfish, which is literally a “red fish.”  It drove me nuts.  (I’ll admit that most real goldfish you see in their bowls are more red than anything else, and that gold, as used in English, is the term that is actually furthest from an accurate description of the patina of these denizens of the domestic depths.)

Poisson D'Avril - Learn FrenchHowever, the big fishy surprise was yet to come:  these self-same inhabitants of cloudy octagonal bowls all across the US, were, for one day in April, the center of the comedy stage in France and Italy, the wet and cold rulers of a world turned on its fins.

It turns out that the holiday known as April Fool’s Day on our side of the Atlantic is known as Poisson d’Avril when celebrated by the French and Pesche d’Aprile when celebrated in Italy.  (Judging from the absence of great vintage post cards on-line, the Italians may have come to this more recently than the French.)

Poisson D’Avril Tradition

Poisson D'Avril - Learn FrenchThe tradition of a day for pranks and pranksters on or about April 1, has existed as far back as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: See “The Vain Cock” where Chanticleer is tricked by a fox. (Wikipedia).

The most benign version of a Poisson d’Avril gag nowadays involves tagging one’s friends and mates with the image of a fish taped to their back, without them noticing — the aim being for the fish to stick as long as possible without the persons noticing that something is fishy around them.

Poisson D'Avril Grownup w/ fish on back

Poisson D’Avril

Poisson D'Avril Kids w/ fish on back

The Pimsleur Difference – Pimsleur Reviews

The signs are everywhere: to know and to have tried Pimsleur, is to love Pimsleur.
This passion people had for Pimsleur was immediately apparent to me as a new employee.  Several friends who congratulated me on taking the job had personal Pimsleur success stories to tell and, the Pimsleur reviews I read on Amazon and were raves, and of a very personal– “these courses changed our lives,”–nature.  And everyone who worked on Pimsleur treated it as far more than just a self-help commodity.
Pimsleur Reviews - Pimsleur Chinese Mandarin UserTwo weeks into the job I was the happy recipient of an offer from a philanthropist in Lexington, MA – the next town over from our offices in Concord—who knew Pimsleur and was passionate about language learning and what it could do for World Peace (a longer story).  He made an offer to donate $500,000 if Pimsleur would develop a course program in Pashto and give it away free to the troops in Afghanistan. That offer has blossomed with into over 23,000 courses in units of both Afghan languages, Pashto and Dari, made available at no charge to the troops, working with the USO as our partner. That’s some 350,000 hours of instruction.

Pimsleur Reviews - Pimsleur Spanish UserIn 2012 we installed a mechanism where our users could post Pimsleur reviews directly to and some 1,655 have done so, providing great feedback and great reviews and testimonials on the site. To bring this passion for Pimsleur to life we asked some of those who had written Pimsleur reviews and testimonials to let us film them for a short video. They were even more enthusiastic in person when describing their experiences with Pimsleur and their quest to learn new languages and speak with people in their native tongues.

Pimsleur Reviews - Pimsleur Italian User
Many of them reinforced the notion that if you follow the course as outlined by Pimsleur, that learning a new language is far easier than we are lead to believe — or far easier than the way it was when trying to learn conjugations in taught in most high schools in the US. Several users mentioned the a-ha moment when a bell goes off, or when you begin to think there’s some “special sauce” being dished out, that makes you realize there’s more to Pimsleur than meets the eye. (It’s in the ear.)Pimsleur Reviews - Pimsleur French User
I’ll admit to unbridled glee on seeing a 15-year-old high-school kid smile as he spoke about “secretly studying” Pimsleur’s French Course on software, and finding afterward that he had not just caught up with his peers, but exceeded them in his knowledge of French.Pimsleur Reviews - Pimsleur Haitian User

However the most universal desire when you read through all of our Pimsleur reviews, or listen to the participants in the video is the most basic human desire to be able to converse with people, particularly people in a foreign land, in their own language and to be understood.

The Nelson Mandela quote about language always seems the most apt:

 “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, it goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, it goes to his heart.”

Having a Great Time, Wish You Were Here …

Let’s face it, most postcards are not sent to those we wish were with us, but rather to those we have left, not always unhappily, at home. Given my long and strong addiction to vintage postcards, scouting them out, collecting them, sending them, and now downloading them, it is necessary to leave a large pool of one’s acquaintances at work and at home in order to justify serious postcard shopping and mailing while abroad.

My constant need for more postcards to send, and more stamps to go with them, makes for an increasingly challenging need to speak in the local tongue better, to understand the taboos. Even in English. I remember as a teenager in Montréal at the Olympics in 1976, I was roundly corrected by an English-speaking Canadian postal clerk who, when I said I wanted 10 postcard stamps for America, replied that I was in America – i.e. Canada — and to be more precise in the future.

I’ve always found approaching any booth like those at the post office off-putting, and as it is often one’s first solo mission using a new language (passport control, post office, border checkpoint), it scares me that much more so. ‘Is it Timbres Étrangères? or is that a Strange Stamp?’ Better to just say ‘pour dix cartes postales vers l’amerique’—surely Canada’s pride won’t interfere in Paris. Do I add “par avion” to prevent the cards arriving home long after I do?

Vintage postcard books together

This is complicated in France by the need to inflate oneself to at least twice one’s full height and to convert what would a question in the US into a declaration in France. “Vous-avez dix timbres pour des cartes postales aux États-Unies.’ (A distinct falling tone on États-Unies, since if there is any hint of a question in your question, any upturn in your tone, you will have entered the land of “oh, mais non, monsieur,” from which you won’t recover unless truly stout of heart.

God forbid you have to ask for a series of postcards stamps for different destinations ——say you are in Italy and are writing to the US, but also to a friend in Italy, and one in London, the conversation necessary with the postal clerk will be prodigious requiring some advance study on your part as well as a map and good pantomime skills as backup. One place the current adage that ‘everyone speaks English’ is not true is among members of the bureaucracies of Western Europe.


Vintage postcards Colossi of Memnon at Thebes, Egypt, Scene in Jerusalem, The  Duomo in the distance, Florence.

Colossi of Memnon at Thebes, Egypt, Scene in Jerusalem, The Duomo in the distance, Florence.

My friend Mark Lanoue gave me this set of turn-of-the-century Postcard Books more than a decade ago. Each book is around 100 years old and still in mint condition. The individual cards (12 or more per book) have never seen the light of day, and are tightly bound in with tiny pieces of tissue paper separating each one. As a result each is a tiny work of art.

Vintage postcards The hall of mirrors at Versailles, The River Jordan, Women in Algiers, The Duomo in Florence.

The hall of mirrors at Versailles, The River Jordan, Women in Algiers, The Duomo in Florence.

And what is any postcard you send or bring home in lieu of pictures you take yourself, but a tiny collectible work of art? The photographs—characteristic townscape or mind-blowing landscape, or the reproduction of the art you got to see in context on foreign museum walls.

Vintage postcards Central Florence, Marie-Antoinette's Bed, a scene in Algiers

Central Florence, Marie-Antoinette’s Bed, a scene in Algiers

One thing that’s true of so many postcards is that the exact scene included in my Ricordi di Firenze postcard album of the Ponte Vecchio is repeated over and over in later years.  First as a plain photo on a sepia background, then a quietly colorized version of that, then a garish color version, and finally a new shot with a modern camera.


Vintage postcards Ponte Vecchio, Florence Italy

Ponte Vecchio, Florence Postcards

Postcards can be a window into the soul of a place even if you are not visiting but while studying the language or doing research on the location history. (click on images) has a vast collection of vintage postcards to cull through, and many are old enough to be out of copyright. EBay and sites like the indispensable provide more options.

If you are interested in getting a feel for another culture, and navigating in a different language, the individual country by country versions of Google can be great. and are easy enough to remember but for a list of the Google local search engines world-wide go to

And here is a starter list of the terms for postcard in 10 languages –the next most important word to include in your search is “vintage.” And I leave it to you to puzzle out in each country, which word on the Google Nav bar means “images” you’ll want that as well.

how to say postcard in 10 languages

To write this I went hunting in our apartment for some vintage postcards from my grandmother and aunt who traveled every summer when I was growing up, or some from my parents who were always on the road, or some of the howlers I sent back from trips in my teens, but no luck. What I did find serves as a perfect example of the importance even the smallest, cheapest piece of mail played at the turn of the penultimate century:

Vintage postcards grandpa around the globe

A photograph of my grandfather and his sisters, taken by their mother, in Cambridge, Mass – 1904 – made into a vintage postcard, with a brief note to their Aunt and Uncle staying on the rue Scribe in Paris.(The tiny white space on the front of the card was all it was legal to use until 1907 when the post office allowed people to write on the address side of a card.)

Tracking the cancelled stamps, the card entered the system in Boston, went to New York, to Paris, and then courtesy of Thomas Cook, was re-routed to Cairo and then Assouan in Egypt. All for a 2¢ stamp. As I have the physical card, I have to assume it made it successfully, and was brought home by Aunt Suzie.

In the age of insta-postcards received digitally on the same day they are taken, things have changed somewhat: mostly the necessity for any vocabulary expanding encounters with foreign Postal workers.


My home postcard rack, with a card from Petra in Jordan,  perhaps my favorite place.

My home postcard rack, with
a card from Petra in Jordan, perhaps my favorite place.

I suspect encounters about the absence/presence and connectivity or lack thereof of WiFi along our travels, may just provide room for equally challenging foreign language improving moments trying to communicate with the local technical service corps.

I can’t wait.