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The Stage is Set


Sixty years before I began work in France, in 1944, the villages of the Franche-Comté region of eastern France were quiet. The war had been distant since 1940. After the invasion and occupation of France by the Germans in 1940, life went back to its old rhythms. Plowing and planting, tending orchards, milking cows, and hiving bees kept the farmers busy in spring. Fall was for harvesting leeks, potatoes, apples, pears and plums Every once in a while the Germans would order the farmers to provide horses or cows for their troops, or make the men register in Lure or Vesoul, the largest towns in the département of the Haute-Saône. Along with the départements of the Doubs, the Territoire de Belfort, and the Jura, the Haute-Saône forms the Franche-Comté region. The occupiers were certainly a factor in the region’s life, but most of the time the Franc-Comtois simply dreamed of the day when liberation would come and life could go back to normal.

Eastern France is often described as “heavily industrialized,” bringing visions of endless smokestacks and rail yards to the minds of would-be tourists. It’s true that there are factories there, including the world headquarters of the automaker Peugeot, a major employer, but the region has kept its essentially rural character outside of the cities. There’s a tradition among Peugeot workers, in fact, to maintain a “farmette” in one of the villages, and to be a factory worker by day and a farmer by night. In Couthenans, many of my neighbors kept chickens and tended large gardens. Others in the parish had orchards, hayfields and cattle. The Franche-Comté is not wine country, it’s cheese country. Montbéliarde dairy cattle, resembling a brown and white version of the Holstein, originated in these villages, and are still the predominate breed of cattle in the fields. They produce the milk that makes the regional cheeses, Comté, Morbier and Mont-d’Or, among others. The most well-known to Americans is La Vache Qui Rit, the Laughing Cow, made in the Jura.

The sights and sounds of the villages haven’t changed much over the centuries. The church bells still toll the hour. To see the stacks of wood stored up for winter heat and cooking, women washing their clothes in the communal fontaine-lavoire, and men working the gardens in their wooden sabots, outsiders might feel they’ve returned to France of the 19th century. When you’re in the villages of the Franche-Comté, the idea that you’re in a “heavily industrialized” region is ludicrous. Fortunately, the term has kept tourists away for years, so the villages retain their rural character and charm.

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