sunflowers (c) Kristin Espinasse

Sunflowers for Soeur Emmanuelle

Please excuse today's non-conformist (... that is: not conforming to the usual blog) format but this is a special edition, devoted to a special, non-conformist French nun. To hear today's word, check out the first and last video (a music video with Calogero Maurici) at the end of this post.

::::::::::::::::::::::::: Y A L L A ! :::::::::::::::::::::::::

True, today's word is Arabic. I hope you'll allow that, just this once. After all, it was her favorite word. She who loved all people, especially the poor, to whom she devoted her life.

"Soeur Emmanuelle" was a French nun, well known as one of France's favorite personnages.* Born "Madeleine Cinquin" in Belgium, at the age of 22 she left her dancing shoes behind--along with that devilish grin (ah, men!)--took her vows, changed her name and became a professeur.*

Diplômée* in Philosophy at the Sorbonne, she went on to teach in Egypt, Turkey and Tunisia. Though she taught Literature and Philosophy, such intellectual heights never interfered with her street smarts which kept her--and her giant heart--close to the pavement: the pavement that is pauvreté:* cold, walked upon, fragile and cracked... and littered with trash. Trodden and overlooked, this "pavement" was something she would never let herself forget.

Poverty... ignited a revolt within her, leading to her outspokenness, to her famous "franc-parler,"* which often ruffled the feathers of her frères* and led to her being labelled an "enquiquineuse": a veritable pain in the neck, a pro-action pest!
Her appearance did not betray her values. From those two large bobby pins haphazardly stuck to each side of her veiled head... to the track shoes on her feet (over the thick socks and nylons), one could surmise that she was in a hurry to catch up with one ever-menacing foe: Destitution.

Which brings us smack back to the pavement and to those poubelles.* You might say (in a chuckling way) that trash defined her. She might have been "Soeur Chiffonnière,"* for she "housed" herself next door to the trash gatherers, or "zabbaleen" (many of whom are children), in one of Cairo's worst slums, where she settled after her "retirement". Troisieme âge,* for her, would be spent in combat, always a "combat du coeur": from the heart, for the helpless.

There in a lice- and rat-ridden bidonville,* home for her was a 4-meter square room--without water, without electricity. According to* Dr. Mounir Neamatalla, a leading Egyptian expert in environmental science and poverty reduction:

"She was living right among them, the garbage collectors, the pigs, the whole mess. I had never seen anything like this in my life... You could see one of the worst qualities of life on the planet, but in this inferno was an enterprising population that worked like ants."

Working side-by-side with "les misérables"* Sister Emmanuelle advanced toward her goal, raising money to build schools and hospitals. She also created vegetable gardens for the poor to nourish themselves. Her roommate, Sister Sara (see second video, below), spoke of her character, saying that when a problem arose, Soeur Emmanuelle exclaimed: "On va foncer!"* to which Sara softly suggested that they might first pray for guidance and direction. For Sister Emmanuelle, "direction" seemed to be something you sought after first jumping to your feet!

So is it any wonder that, asked about her favorite word, Sister Emmanuelle shouted with glee: "Yalla!" Asked to translate the word, she responded, "En avant!"

Amen, Sister! "Forward march" all the way. Your lumière* may have gone out on Sunday, just three weeks shy of your centième* birthday, but your legacy lights our consciences today...and tomorrow--and for as far into the future as the pest that is poverty stretches its condemning claws. Thank you for showing us that a selfless heart, coupled with awareness, is just not enough. It also takes yalla (yalla-yalla-yalla!) to relieve misery. First we must jump to our feet... then inquire about those directions.
PS: Soeur Emmanuelle, I have a confession. As a child, I looked up to movie stars (Shirley Temple, The Bionic Woman), as a teen, I admired glamorous runway models (Paulina Porizkova, Estelle Lefébure) as a young woman I pined over literary figures (it didn't really matter who they were, if they were writers I pined). I just want you to know, Chère Soeur, that while you didn't have the strength of Lindsay Wagner or Paulina's perfect posture -- I'm finally beginning to realize that, more than celebrity or vanity fair, it's really all about what's "in there"... and it is going to take a lot of big hearts to fill those little track shoes of yours, and to keep moving "en avant!" 

For more information on Soeur Emmanuelle's charity: visit

Comments, corrections, conseils... welcome here.

le personnage (m) = character, individual; le professeur (m) = teacher; diplômé(e) (from "diplômer" = to award a diploma); la pauvreté (f) = poverty; le franc-parler (m) = outspokenness; le frère (m) = brother (religious); la poubelle (f) = trash or garbage can; chiffonnier (chiffonnière) = rag picker; le troisième âge (m) = retirement; le bidonville (m) = shanty town; according to = excerpt from a report by Perrine Latrasse, Associated Press; les misérables (mf) = the destitute; on va foncer! = Charge! (Let's get to it!); la lumière (f) = light; centième = one hundredth
Soeur Emmanuelle: "Il ne faut jamais s'arrêter dans la vie, il faut toujours courir, s'acharner."

A Message from KristiOngoing support from readers like you keeps me writing and publishing this free language journal each week. If you find joy or value in these stories and would like to keep this site going, donating today will help so much. Thank you for being a part of this community and helping me to maintain this site and its newsletter.

Ways to contribute:
1.Zelle®, The best way to donate and there are no transaction fees. Zelle to [email protected]

2.Paypal or credit card
Or purchase my book for a friend and so help them discover this free weekly journal.
For more online reading: The Lost Gardens: A Story of Two Vineyards and a Sobriety


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.


So what does Yalla mean?



Kristin, what a very moving and fitting eulogy (good word) there's good word. To connect the bonne soeur's life with growth in yours was the icing on the cake.


Karen: Sister Emmanuelle defines "yalla" as "en avant" -- sort of like "allons-y!" or "Let's get going!"... toward a solution.

"Allons-y" and "en avant" remind us of Sister's track shoes, and how she was always speeding forward, trying to catch up with her "pire ennemie" or worst enemy (poverty)


Beautiful post Kristin! Getting older is worth it for the insight it provides. Thank you!

Jules Greer

My Darling Kristi,

I am always so proud of you, I will always
stand up and "get going" with you. You
have just reminded me that there is a
"Children of the Dump" right here in Puerto Vallarta, maybe your little tribute to Sister Emmanuelle's track shoes is a wake-up
call for me. Another thought - I always loved that photo of your track-shoes last
month covered with sticker-burrs after you
got going on the harvest. I'm off to find my track shoes.



Hi Kristen,
No need to apologize for today's "non-conformist" article - it was one of the best yet! keep up the good work - I look forward to more such articles!


I can't tell you how much I needed this post. Merci, mil mercis!


What an inspiration. Thank you so very much
for that history. I will try to start my day
as a better person.

Carol Reed

The world needs people with Soeur Emmanuelle's sense of hope and courage. A great example to us all.


Yalla! An excellent word for me to learn on the first day of my retirement. Thank you for the inspiring story.


"Soeur Emmanuelle" was a remarkable example of a most necessary social behavior, altruism. She devoted her life to helping others. This trait is natural to humans; it evolved long ago as the 'glue' of all socially organized organisms: the 'whole' is more than the sum of it's parts when self and others have equal weight in our decisions and actions.

Now, more than at any time in human history, we humans must encourage altruism within our families, locally in our communities and through our group actions from afar, as Nation and Planet.

Here is the secret behind altruism: it is elicited through release of oxytocin within our brains. This hormone is the ultimate 'feel good' chemical because it is the essence of love, friendship, and tolerance of others. It is fundamental to the building and maintenance of social networks built with trust, respect and affection.

It is our social networks that ensure individual and group survival during difficult times. The payback in this equation is that these social networks improve brain repair as we age through reduced chronic stress. We 'share our load' with others.

It is oxytocin that normalizes our thought patterns, tamps down brain-damaging responses of fear, aggression and anger. It enables us to readily appreciate our present, rather than living in the past or longing for our future that short-circuits our perception of the passage of time.

From deep in our brains, it normalizes our secretion of dopamine and serotonin, so that we feel pleasure at our successes and keep to productive daily patterns, rather than sink into depression while mired in unproductive circular reasoning and action.

Alongside prayer and meditation, it is the practice of altruism that underlies all spiritual belief.

Exemplary humans like "Soeur Emmanuelle" have a abundance of affection for the poor children of the world - a model of courage, trust and love.


Beautiful post Kristin and a wonderful tribute to an extraordinary woman...

Jeff M

Vous avez le meme coeur, je pense, mais une autre moyen.


This was just wonderful. We learned some words as well as the news. I love seeing the French "volunters or missionairies" sent to the American people. I am afraid that they think that the US is the only country which sends money or people. Living in France has taught me so much about the whole world and opened my eyes to the goodness of all peoples.


Just when I was feeling too old and obsolete to know what to do with the years left to me, I received this wonderful post about Soeur Sara, and learned several new French verbs (and one arabic) to motivate me! Merci, and on s'archarner!


Awesome awesome awesome. Merci Kristin. Your article was inspiring. Let's all find a way to "yalla yalla yalla" in the same spirit as Soeur Emmanuelle.


Wow that was really beautiful, thanks a lot for that moving portrait! I will try to remember this amazing Soeur Emmanuelle.


Isn't there a French song with "Yalla...yalla...yalla..." in its refrain? It's very beautiful and inspiring, too, like Soeur Emmanuelle.

Thank you, Kristin. Everyone's comments are so right...this is a very special post you sent out to us today. Thank you for passing on this beautiful woman's story!


That is a lovely tribute to a remarkable woman, but wouldn't Soeur Emmanuaelle have been described as "Diplômée" (with the second e)?

Peggy Rice

One of the first words I learned upon arriving in Paris eight months ago! You here this on every playground in Paris. Always followed by the word my love in Arabic.


dkahane: Thanks for the extra "e" (diplômée). I'll fix that now...

Mary: En avant!

Intuit: Great message. I'm sure Jules will be emailing me soon, telling me to print it out, that she's already printed out her own copy!

Nade: Happy retirement :-)

Maggie: Did you see the third video? Not sure this is the song...

MomaJules: Did you find the dump?

All: thanks for the positive feedback! Will try to share with you (and to learn about) more of France's "coeurs" in the near future.


With tears in my eyes, I thank you for reminding me to look beyond my self-satisfied life.


I still can't thank my Widgetbox enough for showing me the way to this extraordinary blog. I totally loved your inspiring post. As a student of French, I have found a gold mine less ordinary. Just simply delightful. My compliments. Loved the music in the last video.


Kristin: That's the song alright! We sang it around a fire at a French immersion camp I went to...very spiritual experience. So thanks; I hadn't looked at the videos yet. :)


Thank you for telling us about this woman. I like her fiery spirit! Another hero for my list. I especially appreciate her care for those who are mistreated and ignored.


I think your beautiful new vignoble would be a great venue for a national meeting of Soeur Emmanuelle's organization. Let us put actions to words. Allons y!

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)