Nonetheless, having had two weeks to see the land of Binoche, escargot and Sarkozy up close and personal, I have to say that France has it all over America in many important ways.
Cityscape. Tired of high speed, high volume traffic in city neighborhoods and on arterials? Then stop facilitating it! France has expanded its freeways, but retains the traditional configurations of its surface streets in cities and villages. Even N and D highways (analagous to U.S. and State Highways) twist and turn along historical routes that wind through picturesque villages -- sometimes retaining chokepoints where oncoming cars have to yield to each other. Horsedrawn carriages dealt with it, why should cars have an easier time? The results are streets that are safe for walking and crossing, whether a crowded street in Paris or a tiny village main street that doubles as a 40-45 mph intercity route. In Seattle, concerns over pedestrian safety have been stymied for years by stubborn official adherence to national street and highway design standards that were designed decades ago to facilitate driving. So when the city DOT is asked to make a street "safer," it usually involves making things easier for cars, and not causing them delay. Driving is catered to, cars continue to be king, pedestrians continue to be struck.
A separated bike lane runs alongside the N10 highway in Luisant, outside Chartres
American cities need to learn they can't stimulate construction of transit oriented communities, inadequately fund transit, and continue to provide wide, high-capacity roads. People aren't going to make long term changes in their transportation habits just because gas prices go up; they will drive a little less, but they will still drive when they have no adequate alternative.
French drivers are not more (or less) polite than Americans, but they are safer. French drivers always yield to pedestrians, even jaywalking (which I'm not sure is a civil offense in France), and they stop for yellow lights. A new law going into effect later this year requires motorists to carry fluorescent safety vests, which are to be worn in the event of a breakdown -- safer when on a highway, and makes it clear that you need help.
I didn't see any hybrid cars. But I did see a handful of Neighborhood Electric Vehicles and, of course, tons of tiny city cars. I suspect France is singlehandedly keeping Smart in business.
Transit. Paris didn't screw around when it came to the Metro. The famed underground system is not limited to just a few corridors, instead crisscrossing the city, reaching out to every district. There seem to be stations every few blocks, in every arrondisement.
Talk that Bus Rapid Transit can't work because we can't afford to build more lanes is just a surrender to the automobile (see Cityscape, above). In Paris, many 4 and 6-lane avenues cede a lane in each direction to the bus -- the message is: the bus has higher priority than you and your single-occupancy vehicle, get on the bus or get used to it.
Better and prioritized transit is one way France keeps cars under control. Another, new way is the rental bike. A government initiative has placed a huge number of bike rental stations all over Paris. Every couple of blocks there is a rack where one or two dozen gray "Velib" bikes are electronically locked. Check one out via the ATM-like pay station, and off you go. Parisians of all stripes are riding these bikes to get to work, school and nights on the town. Tourists are using them too. And the best part? It looks like the government didn't spend years planning and discussing until they were blue in the face, and this isn't a modest pilot project. They simply did it. Now Velib stations are pervasive in Paris.
Consumer goods and services. You think the Green trend is getting exposure in America? You haven't seen France, where Bionaturale, or "Bio" is everywhere, even at little B&Bs. Hotels are doing laundry without bleach, and the result is that the sheets smell great. Not to say that they don't have megastores. One, Carrefour, bears an uncanny resemblance to Wal Mart. But I don't think you can get pate-en-croute at Wal Mart.
Diet. There is a noticeable lack of obesity among the French. The food is delicious but not rich, it is served in small portions, and in between meals they stop eating. Meals are savored, not wolfed down, and a social occasion where any subject, great or small, can be discussed, argued, discussed again, and drunk to (see Calvados, below). Like consumer products, Bio is everywhere on menus and in supermarkets. Sadly, there are a large number of McDonalds in France; we learned from a tour guide the French refer to McDonalds as 'the U.S. Embassy.' Even sadder -- that most French think that's how Americans eat all the time.
Calvados. This is a brandy made from Normandy apples and often ordered as an after dinner drink. Having tried it a number of times during the last two weeks, my life will now never be the same.
Photos: This Week in Precipitation goes to France