Invisible People (aka SDF, sans-abri, sans logement, va-nu-pieds)

Family under the bridge

Read The Family Under the Bridge to a young person and help spread homelessness awareness. "Armand, an old Parisian living on the streets of Paris, relished his solitary life. He begged and did odd jobs for money to keep himself warm and fed, and he liked his carefree life. Then one day just before Christmas, a struggling mother and her three children walked into his life..." Click here to order a copy for yourself or to offer as a gift!

I recently discovered a YouTube channel called Invisible People and I cannot stop watching it. It's like getting an entire education in homelessness by the homeless. Each episode is very short, between 3 and 9 minutes, and profiles an S.D.F. or homeless person--from a soft-spoken 83-year-old living in his this resourceful, and creative woman. Do not hesitate to watch several of these eye-opening interviews. And after viewing a number of them, I guarantee you will be incapable of passing a homeless person on the street without stopping to say hello. You may even venture to ask them their story. 

Last night I was tossing and turning in bed and could not get comfortable after pockets of cold air kept entering beneath the covers (our heater broke). I began thinking about some of the people who shared their stories of scavenging for cardboard to sleep on at night--or looking for a blanket after their own covers were stolen! We think thieves break into homes, but it is the homeless who are most often victims of theft. 

Add to the misconceptions about homelessness our own insensitivities. How many of us have innocently joked about looking like a clochard or a hobo, when we really meant to say we need to get cleaned up? We mean no disrespect to the sans-abri, we just aren't thinking about our words. 

This week we will revisit stories of homelessness from the French Word-A-Day archives. In this first story, which took place around 2003, my mom is wandering around the southern French town of Draguignan, when a homeless person confronts her and a few misunderstandings ensue (including a few from readers of the story itself!). Click here for the story and many thanks for reading and sharing. 

Soupe populaire

A tip I learned from Mark Horvath, the creator of Invisible People--and from my Superhero sister-in-law: Give chaussettes! Homeless people go through a lot of socks as they travel in and out of shelters (which often close from 6 a.m to 7 pm--leaving the homeless out on the streets all day) or look for shelters. Share more tips on how to help the homeless, in the comments box below. 

Ongoing support from readers like you helps me continue this French word journal, now in its 18th year! If you enjoy these posts and would like to help keep this site going, please know your donation makes a difference! A contribution by check (click here) or via PayPal (below) is greatly appreciated. Merci!
♥ $10    
♥ $25    
♥ Or click here to send the amount of your choice

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Writers and artists know all about gleaning, or le glanage--they regularly glean for ideas and inspiration! Here's Robyn Mixon's painting "Chez Domaine Rouge-Bleu." (See Robyn's photo farther on.)

glaner (glah-nay) verb

   to pick, to gather, to glean


Audio File: Listen to Jean-Marc read the following text: Download MP3 or Wav file

Quand vous ferez la moisson dans votre pays, vous ne moissonnerez pas vos champs jusqu'au bord, et vous ne glanerez pas ce qui pourra rester de votre moisson; vous laisserez tout cela au pauvre et à l'immigré. - Leviticus 23:22

When you harvest the crops of your land, do not harvest the grain along the edges of your fields, and do not pick up what the harvesters drop. Leave it for the poor and the foreigners living among you.


A Day in a French Life... by Kristin Espinasse

In the dramatic opening scene of her memoir The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls is riding in the back of a New York taxi, wondering whether she has overdressed for the party to which she is headed, when she sees something that knocks the wind right out of her Park Avenue sails.

Out there on the curbside, an older woman wearing rags is rooting through a dumpster. On closer look, the garbage picker is Jeannette's own mother! 

As I read the page-turner memoir, I could only imagine how a daughter's heart seized up on seeing her intelligent, artistic, and once athletic mother resort to rooting through the trash. What had brought her to this? And, more curiously, why was the waste picker smiling?

It wasn't until I saw the fascinating documentary, The Gleaners and I, by French filmmaker Agnès Varda, that I began to see this touching scene quite differently, and even to recall a few gleaning episodes of my own. Before writing about those, I will share some of the eloquent descriptions I gathered from viewers' reactions to The Gleaners:

... a wonderful documentary that reminds us of how much we produce and waste in the world and how the disenfranchised (and artistic) make use of that waste to survive... The characters Varda encounters are equally compelling and interestingly are not portrayed as whiny or blameful of others for their situations: they simply state how they live and we are left impressed with their ingenuity. (anonymous)

One of my favorite scenes in the film is when we are introduced to a wizened Chinese man in Paris living at home among a heap of dumpster gleanings. He has taken in a boarder—a happy-go-lucky black man who hunts the day long for discarded food and items that he himself will repair and give away to those less fortunate than himself. "Somebody might need this," the ragpicker says. Evenings, the Chinese man will cook up the dumpster chicken in one of the ovens that his resourceful roommate has brought home. As the men prepare to dine together, seated on crooked chairs and ever amazed by their "fortune", I have to reach over and hit the pause button. Have you ever seen such sweet faces, such sparkling eyes, than on these two lovely men who care for one another and for others? 

In another scene, we observe a clean-cut wirey man stooping here and there as he scours the market stalls in Paris at the end of market day. Here and there he pops a broken piece of celery or apple or lettuce into his mouth... "Beta carotene! Vitamin K! I'm a biology major," he explains, adding that though he earns a salary, he still needs to eat and by the way, he's vegetarian! He admits that cheese is a little more difficult to find, but there's plenty of tossed out bread. We later learn that though he holds a scientific diploma, this biologist chooses to sell papers outside the train station. In a touching "who'd have thunk it?" scene, we see the same garbage picker volunteering his time, each evening, to teach refugees English. His carefully illustrated blackboards featuring, among other objects, a handdrawn bike and its phonetic word equivalent, attest as much to his selfless and caring soul as to his professionalism and skill.    

There are several other heart-awakening moments in which Agnès Varda steadies her lens on the outcasts who in turn teach us more about the art of living than we will ever glean from the pages of any New York Times bestseller on the subject. The rag-wearing, sometimes toothless characters could write volumes on the subject. Meantime they have more meaningful pursuits: getting by, while managing to smile at life. 

As for my own dumpster days—as a priviledged child—I'd root unselfconsciously through the trash bin (one we shared with the neighbor), ever amazed at the ongoing source of riches (in this case--cans of Hamm's beer which could be recycled for cash after stomping the cans flat!). Our neighbor, a single, middle-aged woman, regularly replenished the trash bin with this blatantly underestimated source of income! I began to feel sorry about her loss, which to me related to her pocket book and not her liver health (I had no idea that all those cans equalled addiction). 

I regret losing the desire to salvage things (publicly, at least, though the occasional foray through a stranger's trash still happens), but I am grateful to live here in France, where gleaning is alive and well and rooted deeply in the culture! How many times during family outings has an uncle or a cousin or a grandma stooped to pick up a tumbled down apricot or a chestnut, or paused to uproot a lonely asparagus or a bunch of herbs from the edge of a neighbor's yard. "Have you seen what they charge for this at the markets?" my in-laws shake their heads. Soon they'll make up a fresh batch of herbs de provence--more fragrant and delicious than can be found on any supermarket aisle. 

When my husband returned from the States after his multi-city wine tour he brought me an unexpected surprise: two charming rush-bottom chairs!

"I found them in the airport parking lot," Jean-Marc explained, "beside the dumpster." I admit, if he had brought those home 15 years ago--as a consolation gift for his two week absence, I might have been hugely disappointed! Nowadays, I don't want the ill-fitting T-shirt that he had quickly rung up at a pricy airport trap shop. (I'd rather have a couple of bars of chocolate, or, in this case, some adorable chairs!) 

Each time I look at the chairs, I feel the same kind of affection one feels when looking at some of the characters in Agnès Varda's documentary. They are quirky. They are imperfect. They are charming. They are lovely. And, as one of the men in the film said, "they are needed."


I hope you will enjoy Agnès Varda's The Gleaners and I as much as I have. Read more about it here. (View the first part of the documentary at the end of this post.)

 If you haven't read her memoir, order Jeannette Wall's Glass Castle. You won't be able to put it down!

Related posts: Read about Abbey Pierre and his mission to care for the homeless. Click here.

 Le Coin Commentaires
Please share your own gleanings on "the gleaning life". Will you admit to dumpster diving? Or do you find it repulsing? What sort of finds have you dragged home (from a field or a trash can or a market stall -- apples? bread? parsley? (one homeless man in the video called the parsley he found "a lovely bouquet"). Thanks for sharing your thoughts here in the comments box.

I could watch this video again and again -- which means it is a welcome addition to one's video library! Don't forget to order a copy of Agnès Varda's The Gleaners and I (click here), the DVD includes a "Two years later" segment, in which some of the characters in the documentary are revisited. The documentary makes a thoughtful gift for any Francophile or for anyone interested in art or movie making or frugality or recycling. Order it here.

 Helpful Customer Reviews:

Film maker Agnes Varda turns her camera lenses toward modern day gleaners--the poor, the dispossessed, the ecologically aware and the alienated--to paint a new but still somewhat romantic image of those follow along behind the parade of life, picking through its remains. - Jean E. Pouliot

I enjoyed seeing parts of France not normally seen on the screen or by tourists. In fact in some ways this documentary could serve as a kind of travelog so widely does Varda and her camera travel about the French countryside and cities. - Dennis Littrell

This isn't just about people surviving as scavengers. That's some of it, but it's also about people making art from left objects/trash, and some have philosophical views on the waste our society produces. - Wendell

 Click here to order The Gleaners and I

Robyn & Al Mixon
To my left are artist Robyn Mixon and her husband, Al, who joined us for the May 16th wine-tasting.

Ongoing support from readers like you helps me continue this French word journal, now in its 18th year! If you enjoy these posts and would like to help keep this site going, please know your donation makes a difference! A contribution by check (click here) or via PayPal (below) is greatly appreciated. Merci!
♥ $10    
♥ $25    
♥ Or click here to send the amount of your choice

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un petit mot

Flowers and un petit mot for you today.

Note: SUMMER BREAK! The next edition goes out the week of August 22nd.

un petit mot (uhn peuh tee moh)

    : a little note

Audio FileDownload MP3 or Wav file

Je t'ai laissé un petit mot sur ton bureau. I left you a little note on your desk.

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A Day in a French Life... by Kristin Espinasse

I just deleted a story I'd written about racism. It began something like this:
They say that racism is at a new high...

In the essay there was a thought I was developing that went like this:
That anyone could feel superior to another seems to me the lowest form of barbarism

(I admit, I had to pause to look up "barbarian", and, just to be sure:
barbar = savage, Neanderthal, rude, uncivil, lacking learning, insensitive, a boor... "a crude uncouth ill-bred person lacking culture or refinement")

Then I had another look at the idea I'd been developing:
That anyone could feel superior to another seems to me the lowest form of barbarism.  

Only... it occurred to me that such a thought (a judgement, wasn't it?) might itself be barbaric! (is "judgmental" a synonym for "barbarian"?)....

And so I threw it out: the thought, and those that followed. Perhaps when it comes to ideas, it is better to receive than to give? Anyways, I know so little.

What is sure is that along with most people I am heartbroken about the state of the world. The London Riots, racism, hunger, illness. So many people in need. What are we to do? 

Meantime, our own families cry out for our attention--reminding us of the idea that charity begins at home.

I awoke yesterday morning to a message on my keyboard. The handwritten note made me pause before firing up my computer. Le petit mot was written in sky blue, sunshine yellow, and rose red. In the center, there was a beautiful rosette, colored in with the same rainbow in which the words were written.

I recognized my daughter's calligraphie and, on reading her words, her message deeply touched me:

    Mon Plus Beau Cadeau

        Je t'aime

        tu me donne espoir


        à avancer

        à réussir


        Je peux réussir

        cette annee grâce à toi

        j'ai confiance en toi

        je t'aime tellement

        Car sans l'amour que serait le monde?


I sat staring at the paper and its colorful illustrations. I imagined my daughter voicing these words. I heard each phrase clearly: aide-moi... pousse-moi... je peux reussir...

I listened as her voice drifted off... as other voices superimposed themselves over her own. I heard the misguided youths in London, their victims, the hungry children, the forgotten, the outcast, the elderly as they echoed my daughter's message: aide moi... car sans amour que serait le monde?

Rereading my daughter's letter, I realized that she speaks for all humanity, young and old, and that what the world needs more than ever is "espoir", "aide", "amour"  for "without love what would the world be?"


Note: To put my daughter's message into context, her petit mot comes just before the beginning of the school year (several weeks from now, but she is already motivating herself...).

P.S.: I have left Jackie's spelling as is (proof that she needs help in school :-). corrected Jackie's spelling in the passage above.

Le Coin Commentaires

Comments, corrections, and stories of your own are welcome here, in the comments box.



French Vocabulary

le petit mot = the little note
calligraphie = handwriting

Translation for Jackie's letter:

Mon Plus Beau Cadeau = my most beautiful gift
Je t'aime = I love you
tu me donnes de l'espoir = you give me hope
aide-moi = help me
à avancer = to advance
à réussir = to succeed
pousse-moi = give me a little push forward
Je peux réussir = I can succeed
cette année grâce à toi = this year, thanks to you
j'ai confiance en toi = I trust in you
je t'aime tellement = I love you so much
Car sans l'amour que serait le monde? = For without love what would the world be?


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Reminder: SUMMER BREAK! The next edition of French Word-A-Day goes out the week of August 22nd.

Meantime, I highly recommend the book that I have just, sadly, finished. Read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks!!! You learn so much, laugh and cry so much... It'll leave you thinking. Félicitations to the writer, whose prose touched me deeply. Order Rebecca Skloot's book here

Random Stories: Click on the links to read these anecdotes

Enfance: An Arizona Childhood

"Harvest Widow": on following my husband's dream

Tel Quel: My Rock-n-Roll sister-in-law 

My Mother-in-Law, Aging, and Elvis 


Correct Your French Blunders

Correct Your French Blunders: How to Avoid 99% of the Common Mistakes Made by Learners of French. Speak and write French as if it were your native tongue! Order here.


Green shutters in Cassis. All photos (c) Kristin Espinasse. Never miss a word or photo, subscribe to French Word-A-Day


Ongoing support from readers like you helps me continue this French word journal, now in its 18th year! If you enjoy these posts and would like to help keep this site going, please know your donation makes a difference! A contribution by check (click here) or via PayPal (below) is greatly appreciated. Merci!
♥ $10    
♥ $25    
♥ Or click here to send the amount of your choice

You can also support this journal by purchasing our book-in-progress, click here.

pièces jaunes


Our 13-year-old, Jackie, making a wish after putting several pièces jaunes into the votive candles tray.  Sign up for a free French Word-A-Day

pièces jaunes (pyes zhone) noun fpl

    : "yellow pieces", or loose change

French christmas music French Christmas Music: "Mon Beau Sapin", "Saint Nuit", "La Marche des Rois", "Petite Ville Bethléem", "Il est né Le Divin Enfant". Order CD here.

A Day in a French Life... by Kristin Espinasse

Jackie and I are counting coins in the parking lot beside the boulodrome. It's "after school" aka "l'heure du gouter" and my 13-year-old is hankering for a powdery beignet, only I'm out of cash, or had thought I was....

Réfléchissons! What about the car's cendrier? My daughter and I grab for it... one of us signaling our victory with a rattling of the removable ash bin (and those cantankerous coins within!). 

The triumphant rush is quickly hushed when all we can see inside the cendrier is a yellow haze. Pas de chance! Gone are the silver-edged coins that would make our bakery run an easy one. Not a one- or two-euro coin to be found!

"Plan B" has us pecking out several easy targets: the more "meaty" 10 and 20 centime pieces. What's left are the tinny tiny pièces jaunes. For our muffin mission, we'll need another 30 or so of these petite pièces.

Building little coin stacks as we go (and none of those paper penny wrappers I used as a kid, years ago), we sort through centimes of various value—in ones, twos, and fives—to add to our modest but respectable ten and twenty centime pieces. Enfin, we arrive at the spendable sum of one euro.

Having done the arithmetic and painstakingly come up with the gist of it (the funds necessary for one sugary bun), we linger thoughtfully. It is a mixture of pride and politesse that is nagging us. On the one hand, or the "pride side", one of us (I've already elected Jackie) is going to feel very uneasy unloading a ton of tiny coins on the baker's counter. And on the other hand (celle de la Politesse) one hates to trouble the baker with so much coin counting.

Then there's the guilt: the "yellow pieces" really don't belong to us. They are for the needy, or should be. A hankering is not a need, nor is a hankerer a needy one (though a hankerer may be hungry, and for a bun!). I am thinking of "Operation Pièces Jaunes" the French foundation that began in 1990 with the goal of improving the daily lives of children and adolescents in pediatric hospital wards.  

Yes, but, giving is optional and, as options go: we can opt to use these yellow pieces now... and use this occasion as un rappel: a reminder to contribute our cantankerous coins to Operation Pièces Jaunes!

How quickly we convince ourselves and, like that, fast as fried flour, Jackie is off to the baker's for her beignet and back in a flash. 

"How did it go, Sweety? Did the baker look at you funny?" 

"No," Jackie assured me. "But she wanted me to tell you that she would be happy to buy some of our wine. That we need only to go and see her...."

With that, I slid down in my car seat. I had thought about pride; I had thought about la politesse... but I hadn't imagined our baker would worry about our very own financial fitness! Let that be un rappel. Next time I'll remember: the pièces jaunes really are reserved for the poor!

Post Note: to be clear, the French do regularly use those not-so-handy pièces jaunes... (else why would a baguette cost 85 centimes? Hmmm?). So don't hesitate to use them when you are in France.

...still and all, it is good to be reminded that a better place exists for our excess: in the pockets of the less fortunate it is always used best

:: Le Coin Commentaires ::
Corrections, comments, and stories of your own are most welcome, here, in the comments box

French Vocabulary

le boulodrome = area for playing boules

l'heure du gouter = snack time

le beignet = doughnut

réfléchissons... = let's think for a moment...

le cendrier = ashtray

pas de chance! = outta luck!

les pièces jaunes = "yellow pieces", spare change, pennies

enfin = finally

celle de la politesse = that of politeness

un rappel = a reminder

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That's the other Jackie, in drag. She is one of my muses, someone I had the chance to meet thanks to my belle-soeur, Cécile. Read a poem ("Bohème") I wrote for Jackie and see a picture of my belle-soeur (she's the one with the tattoo) here.

And speaking of bohemiennes, I hope you don't mind my sharing this mini-review (more of a "Tweet") I wrote yesterday about another unlikely bohème, Darlene Deibler Rose:

DarleneEvidence Not Seen: A Woman's Miraculous Faith in the Jungles of World War II

Might I add:

Thankful to be reading this book about a strong woman who doesn't have a namby-pamby bone in her body and who knows the meaning of gratefulness (grateful for a coconut covered fly to eat, grateful for a grass mat on which to sleep...)  Order this book, here.



Ongoing support from readers like you helps me continue this French word journal, now in its 18th year! If you enjoy these posts and would like to help keep this site going, please know your donation makes a difference! A contribution by check (click here) or via PayPal (below) is greatly appreciated. Merci!
♥ $10    
♥ $25    
♥ Or click here to send the amount of your choice

You can also support this journal by purchasing our book-in-progress, click here.


Christmas in Provence (c) Kristin Espinasse

How much is that kitty in the window? Photo taken in Vaison La Romaine. Never miss a Provençal picture, sign up for French Word-A-Day.

donner (doh-nay) verb

    : to give      => donner secours = to give help, aid

All the "definitions" for the word "to give" are in today's story. Read on.

Hear the word 'donner' pronounced: Download donner.wav


A Day in a French Life... by Kristin Espinasse

The Art of Giving

The other day I called Jules in Mexico to ask for her help in giving. What could I give my belle-famille for Christmas? What could I give my friends? The idea of giving someone something that they may not like or need makes me want to just give up and call this season "greed".

"It's all so commercial!" I complain to my mom. 
"That's not the point," Jules argues. "It's about learning to give...."

Learning to give. Jules is right! How many of us need practice in, as Mom calls it, "The Art of Giving"? This season may be a commercial one (one that began some time on Black Friday...) but if, amidst the cramped cash registers and credit-card turnover--if we can learn to reach down deep into our pockets... then maybe the act of reaching will be the first in many more automatic acts of kindness?

Yesterday I learned about a man who exemplifies the art of giving (and thanks to Christine Buckley for pointing us in his direction). Narayanan Krishnan was already at that time a celebrated chef at a Five Star hotel there in India and was on his way to Switzerland, where he was short-listed for an elite post. But on the way out of his Indian village, he had the shock of a lifetime. He witnessed a man eating his very own waste in order to quiet his hunger pangs.

Narayanan Krishnan did not go to Switzerland. Instead, he sat down on the floor with his trusty cutting board...  and began fixing meals for that hunger-pangued man, and for others who could not care for themselves. The following year, in 2003, he founded the nonprofit group Akshaya Trust ( 

29-year-old Narayanan Krishnan wakes at 4 am to begin the work to feed the homeless, the mentally ill, and the old—those who, as Narayanan points out, have been left uncared for by society.

In the following video (click over to the blog if you are reading via email), Narayanan shows us how to give with the whole being: body and soul:

He makes the food...

he carries it to the incapacitated

he feeds it to the weak, hand to mouth

he washes their wasted bodies

he cuts their hair "for them to feel, psychologically, that they are also human beings"

he gives them a shave

he prays at their feet

he holds their hand

he makes them laugh!

he takes them into his arms and hugs them...

 "Food is one part, love is another part," Narayanan explains. "Food gives them physical nutrition; the love and affection which you show will give them mental nutrition!"

Along with hunger, there is dignity, along with an empty stomach, there is a heart in need.

"We are all the same," Narayanan remarks. "Everybody has got 5.5 liters of blood. I am just a human being. For me everybody the same!"

After viewing such an act of kindness, we are inspired to break out and to do the same... we wonder, as Narayanan did, about the purpose and the meaning of our own life: what is it if not to reach out and help others?

"There are thousands and thousands and lots and lots of people suffering...

...What is the ultimate purpose of life?

It's to give!

Start giving

See the joy of giving."


To comment on this story, click here.
To view the video (for those reading via email), click here and skip to the end of this story. To fully appreciate the clip, watch it twice (reading the captions second time around).

Note: Narayanan is one of the Top Ten CNN heroes for 2010. 

Looking for places to give? Not sure how to choose the right charity? Check out Charity Navigator. Many of the charities offer the possibility to sign up for monthly sponsoring -- a great way to ensure that some of your earnings regularly go to those who really need it. To recommend a charity, use the comments box


My beautiful-hearted mom, "Jules". 


Jules says to look a person in the eye when you smile, that's one way to begin giving. And to never underestimate the power of touch. Happy Holidays. Hugs to all!

French christmas music French Christmas Music: "Mon Beau Sapin", "Saint Nuit", "La Marche des Rois", "Les anges dans nos campagnes". CD here. 

Ongoing support from readers like you helps me continue this French word journal, now in its 18th year! If you enjoy these posts and would like to help keep this site going, please know your donation makes a difference! A contribution by check (click here) or via PayPal (below) is greatly appreciated. Merci!
♥ $10    
♥ $25    
♥ Or click here to send the amount of your choice

You can also support this journal by purchasing our book-in-progress, click here.

la journee mondiale de l'alimentation

grenade or grenadine in France, market basket, price label (c) Kristin Espinasse,
A basket of pomegranates at our local superette.

la journée mondiale de l'alimentation

    : World Food Day

Audio File & Example Sentence:
Download Wav or Download MP3

Listen to Jean-Marc pronounce the following French words:

Aujourd'hui c'est la journée mondiale de l'alimentation. Comme dit Coluche, "Quand je pense à toi, je pense à moi." Today is World Food Day. As Coluche says, "When I think of you, I think of me."


red bicycle, yellow wall (c) Kristin Espinasse, Today is World Food Day!

On this day, many of us are asking ourselves: What can I do to help the hungry? As students, armchair travelers, artists, autodidacts et encore, we are an eclectic and a creative group -- capable of conceiving solutions to try to meet the needs of those who have no food to eat.

Those of you who are ready to change a life -- ready to act now! -- I invite you to check out these charities -- or to list your own favorite charity for those in need:

Food For the Poor (Kristin's recommendation)

One (Jean-Marc's recommendation)

(List your favorite charity...)

 Or check out Charity Navigator to find a charity not listed here.




*   *   *

Suze la Rousse, milemarker, road sign, Drome, France, D59 (c) Kristin Espinasse
...a sneak peak at tomorrow's Cinéma Verité photo gallery.

In Gifts and more...

The Life of a Simple Man :
I reread and reloved this book over summer vacation.
Read it in English or read it in French.

Paris door mat:
an original gift for a francophile!

Olive Oil Infused With Herbs de Provence :
with thyme, rosemary, basil and tarragon

The Chorus (A family film favorite!)
When he takes a job teaching music at a school for troubled boys, Clément Mathieu is unprepared for its harsh discipline and depressing atmosphere. But with passion and unconventional teaching methods, he's able to spark his students' interest in music and bring them a newfound joy! It also puts him at odds with the school's overbearing headmaster, however, locking Mathieu in a battle between politics and the determination to change his pupils' lives!

Ongoing support from readers like you helps me continue this French word journal, now in its 18th year! If you enjoy these posts and would like to help keep this site going, please know your donation makes a difference! A contribution by check (click here) or via PayPal (below) is greatly appreciated. Merci!
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la frangine

Jean-Marc's frangine.

la frangine 

  : sister (in informal French)

A DAY IN A FRENCH LIFE by Kristi Espinasse

When Jean-Marc's sister comes to stay with us, the kids want to touch their aunt's pink hair, ride in her orange car, and give up their beds for her comfort. Do you still live in a school bus and can we come visit? they want to know.

The bus has been sold, she tells them, but there is plenty of room in her two-ton camion. The home being of a mobile nature, such a visit might be in Normandy or Paris or even Africa—wherever work or wonderment might take her. Aunt Cécile has worked as a mime, as a circus-tent technician and, most recently, as a driver for a punk-rock band—she even holds a poids lourds license.

Aunt Cécile with the pink hair drove up in an orange station wagon this weekend. She is taking the clunker to Africa. Her mission is to transport English books to a bibliothèque in Gambia. For cash, which she calls flouze, she will sell her car along the way, in Morocco perhaps, where station wagons are used as taxis. And while she is there, she—and the friends with whom she is traveling—will get the shots they need for Africa. Immunization, Cécile explains, is less expensive in Morocco. For the price of one French injection, she and her potes can each get vaccinated before venturing south along war-torn roads that lead to hungry villages.

Along our manicured driveway, our family gathers for the bon voyage wishes. But before she goes, there are so many things I want to ask my sister-in-law about her life, one so different from mine.

"We don't ask these questions," my mother-in-law sighs, wanting to ask them more than I. 

After my belle-mère kisses her daughter goodbye, it is my turn to say au revoir.

There we stand, side by side, my frangine and I—I with salon highlights in my hair, my sister-in-law with Mercurochrome streaks in hers (the dark red liquid stains it radical pink), I with diamonds on my finger, she with jewels in her soul. She is a French Robin Hood and her treasures are the cast-offs that she spirits away from the privileged. I am the stable, square, secure sister-in-law, still searching, longing to be spirited away with those old clothes and books of mine that are headed out the door, to Afrique.

This story is part of a collection of blog posts, in the book Blossoming in Provence.

Blossoming in provence

French Vocabulary

le camion

le poids lourd
heavy goods vehicle

la bibliothèque

le flouze
(or flouse)
dough (argot for cash as are le fric, le pognon, le blé, and la thune)

le pote


bon voyage

have a nice trip

la belle-mère


au revoir

l'Afrique (f)


Ongoing support from readers like you helps me continue this French word journal, now in its 18th year! If you enjoy these posts and would like to help keep this site going, please know your donation makes a difference! A contribution by check (click here) or via PayPal (below) is greatly appreciated. Merci!
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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."

Ongoing support from readers like you helps me continue this French word journal, now in its 18th year! If you enjoy these posts and would like to help keep this site going, please know your donation makes a difference! A contribution by check (click here) or via PayPal (below) is greatly appreciated. Merci!
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Abbé Pierre's "holy anger" drove him to fight for the rights of those sans-toit, without a roof over their head. Take a moment to read about this great Frenchman, and thank you for sharing this post with a friend.

le (la) sans-abri (sahns-ahbree) noun, masculine & feminine
    : homeless person

"Sans-abri" means, literally, "without shelter"; les sans-abri = the homeless.
=> SDF (Sans Domicile Fixe) is also a term used for the homeless. Les SDF = The homeless


A DAY IN A FRENCH LIFE... by Kristin Espinasse

Day before yesterday, I watched and listened as the French mourned the death of their favorite personnage: l'Abbé Pierre, voted third greatest Frenchman after Charles de Gaulle and Louis Pasteur.

"Abbot Peter" was the short priest with the long beard, the white-haired legend in the black beret, the former Resistance fighter in a dark cape who now clutched a bleached wood cane.

Like his appearance, Abbé Pierre, who once broke his vow of chastity, yielding to the force of desire, was a man of contrasts. Humble and soft-spoken, he was driven by a "holy anger" and known for his passionate outbursts when speaking for the homeless. He once told Jean-Marie Le Pen to "shut up!" (Ta gueule!) after the president of the National Front implied that all of France's ills stemmed from immigration.

His beliefs were sometimes unorthodox, as he felt that priests should be able to marry, that gays should be able to adopt, and that women should be able to be ordained. Above all, Abbé Pierre believed in the homeless and their unspeakable living conditions; caring for the sans-abri* would be his life's mission.

While [ex] President Chirac was said to be bouleversé* by Abbé Pierre's death, it was the thoughtful words of a homeless man that touched me the most as I listened to the midday news: "Sa mort, ça me fait plus mal que la morsure du froid," his death, it hurts me more than frostbite."

Frostbite and hunger were on Abbé Pierre's agenda, made famous in 1954 when he stole into a radio station and demanded the microphone. It was a murderous winter for the homeless in Paris and an old woman had just been found frozen to death on the Boulevard de Sebastopol, an eviction notice still in her hand. Reaction to Abbé Pierre's outcry was overwhelming and the French, both rich and poor, responded with blankets, coats, heaters and money as well as with rice, pasta, bread, chocolate and canned food. Charlie Chaplin (exiled in Paris at the time and made famous for his character the "Little Tramp") handed over many thousands of francs, with the explanation "the money belongs to the vagabond I portrayed".

It was in 1949 that Abbé Pierre founded the Emmaus Society with the idea to "travailler avec des pauvres pour des pauvres" to work with the poor for the poor. The poor that were to become his followers were also known as the "Ragpickers" by reason of the junk that they collected, organized and now sold in open-to-the-public warehouses throughout France. For this, Abbé Pierre was sometimes referred to as the "ragpickers' saint".

Activist for the poor for more than five decades, at 5:25 a.m. on January 22nd, at the age of 94, Abbe Pierre's light went out, when he died in Paris after being hospitalized for a lung infection. The feisty yet humble Frenchman had requested that the following words be written on his tomb:

                               "Il a essayé d'aimer." ("He Tried to Love.")

References: les sans-abri (mf) = the homeless; boulversé(e) = deeply upset

     In books: Tune Up Your French: Top 10 Ways to Improve Your Spoken French

Listen to my daughter, Jackie, pronounce today's word and read the French headlines -- from the journal "l'Orient Le Jour": La mort de l'abbé Pierre, apôtre des sans-abri, bouleverse la France
The death of Abbot Pierre, apostle of the homeless, shatters France
Download wav or Download mp3

Fodor's Around Paris with Kids: 68 Great Things to Do Together !
In French Music (Jeanne Moreau!) -- I heard these songs over the weekend and loved them!
Wandering Paris: A Guide to Discovering Paris Your Way
The Ultimate French Review and Practice: Mastering French Grammar for Confident Communication

Ongoing support from readers like you helps me continue this French word journal, now in its 18th year! If you enjoy these posts and would like to help keep this site going, please know your donation makes a difference! A contribution by check (click here) or via PayPal (below) is greatly appreciated. Merci!
♥ $10    
♥ $25    
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donner (doh-nay) verb
  1. to give

donner secours = to give help, aid

Hear the word 'donner' pronounced: Download donner.wav

Citation du Jour:
Le vrai secours aux misérables, c'est l'abolition de la misère.
True aid to the poverty-stricken, is the abolition of poverty.
--Victor Hugo

A Day in a French Life... by Kristin Espinasse

Jean-Marc and I are deeply saddened by the tragedy that has bouleversée* America. Our thoughts and prayers go out to those who have been affected by the devastating ouragan.* I share with you today a few randomly chosen headlines from the francophone press.

                                    *     *     *
From L'Express:
Un monde étonné observe les USA en lutte avec Katrina
An astonished world observes the US in a struggle with Katrina.

Chaos et dévastation en Nouvelle-Orléans après l'ouragan
Chaos and devastation in New Orleans after the hurricane

From Edicom:
le showbiz se mobilise pour les sinistrés
(those in) showbiz join forces for disaster victims

From Le Figaro:
La rupture des digues était prévisible
Rupture of the levees was foreseeable

From Libération:
La Louisiane et le Mississipi sous les eaux
Louisiana and Mississippi under water

From Le Petit Journal:
L'Amérique en état de choc
America in a state of shock

From Le Figaro:
La tragédie
The tragedy

From L'
La Nouvelle-Orléans en proie au pillage après le cyclone
New Orleans plagued by looting after the cyclone

From L'Humanité:
La Nouvelle-Orléans, toute une cité engloutie
New Orleans, an entire city swallowed up

From Radio-Canada:
Le monde vient en aide aux États-Unis
The world comes to the aid of the United States

From Libre Belgique:
Le cauchemar américain
The American nightmare

La peur et la faim dans un camp de "réfugiés" en Louisiane
Fear and hunger in a "refugee" camp in Louisiana

From Edicom:
Le chanteur Fats Domino secouru
The singer Fats Domino is saved

From Radio-Canada:
Arrivée tardive des secours à La Nouvelle-Orléans
Late arrival of help to New Orleans

From Futura Sciences:
Dégâts apocalyptiques après le passage du cyclone Katrina
Apocalyptic damage after the passage of the Katrina cyclone

Donner = to give. A nonverbal way to practice today's French verb...


*References: bouleverser = to shatter, to move deeply, to turn upside down: un
ouragan (m) = a hurricane

Ongoing support from readers like you helps me continue this French word journal, now in its 18th year! If you enjoy these posts and would like to help keep this site going, please know your donation makes a difference! A contribution by check (click here) or via PayPal (below) is greatly appreciated. Merci!
♥ $10    
♥ $25    
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