Invisible People (aka SDF, sans-abri, sans logement, va-nu-pieds)
Third greatest Frenchman after Charles de Gaulle and Louis Pasteur + Charlie Chaplin's big French heart

Enquiquineuse: The famous French advocate who was known as a pain in the neck

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I woke up this morning thinking about my grandmother, Audrey Young. I was remembering a phrase she shared with me at the end of her life, in a nursing home. "The squeaky wheel gets the grease!" she would say. It meant that if you don't pipe up people will not help you!

Sister Emmanuelle, who we learn about today, would have high-fived my Grandma Audrey--and then the two might have enjoyed a gin and tonic together :-) Here is today's word and a profile on a most amazing femme française as part of our discussion on homelessness


    : a person who is a pain in the neck

: Listen to Jean-Marc read the following sentence in French

Click here and Listen to "enquiquineuse"

Mieux vaut passer pour une enquiquineuse qu'on respecte que pour une gentille qu'on piétine.
Better to be regarded as a pain in the neck that one respects than a nice woman that is trampled on.

--from the book 
Etre femme au travail: Ce qu'il faut savoir pour réussir mais qu'on ne vous dit pas Livre d'Anne-Cécile Sarfati
To Be a Woman at Work: What you need to know to succeed but what no one tells you...

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by Kristin Espinasse

Y A L L A ! 

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 labeled 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, 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, just three weeks shy of your 100th 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

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) = retirementle bidonville (m) = shanty town; les misérables (mf) = the destitute; on va foncer! = Charge! (Let's get to it!); la lumière (f) = light

Soeur emmanuelle confessions d'une religieuse flammarion

A must-read! Pick up a copy of Soeur Emmanuelle's book in French


After posting Soeur Emmanuelle's story the first time, in 2008, I read a fascinating response to it in the comments, by Intuit:

"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 its 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 an abundance of affection for the poor children of the world - a model of courage, trust and love. 


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For more online reading: The Lost Gardens: A Story of Two Vineyards and a Sobriety