After spending five months in England and France, we have formed some opinions about both countries, and about this kind of extensive travel. The following is a summary of our conclusions from our French experience:
We continue to enjoy France beyond Paris more than Paris itself. We had a grand time traveling through Normandy: the people were friendly, the scenery often spectacular with a surprising number of buildings dating back many hundreds of years. The roads were good and the Michelin maps excellent. In Paris we luxuriated in museum and monument visits, of course, and felt much of the same sense of being part of a tide of history, but the city itself is dirty, noisy, and overcrowded especially in the summer when we competed with the other tourists. (Among the practical tips: baguettes get stale even just overnight; the late sunset confused our sense of time; the telephone card is a great invention as long as one is willing to hunt for a working pay phone; speaking and reading French, even though all three of us could do it with some degree of success, makes the French tourist experience more tiring than visiting an English-speaking country.)
Despite the war, we found the French to be uniformly friendly and courteous to us, possibly partly because they didn't believe these events affected them directly. As always, we noticed that the French are quite literal in their responses; this can give the impression of brusqueness, but is really more impersonal than that. More French, in Paris and in Normandy, speak English than we had found on previous trips.
We think we understand why the French and English seem so different: the two countries have fundamentally different political institutions. This was a surprise to us, because both are generally classified as liberal Western Democracies. But in fact the French people have, and in general always have had, at least since the time of Napoleon, a strong central government run by a cadre of elite civil servants which micromanages the country. The French electorate splits its vote between a wide spectrum of political parties, indicating a basic disagreement among the people about the type of government they desire. There are Communists, Socialists, Greens, Centrists, Gaullists, and Right Wingers. There are political clubs for the North African immigrants, and perhaps soon they will have a political party. The largest group of immigrants, however, is the Portuguese, who flock to France to find work. So the French people tend to leave politics to the politicians, except when it affects them personally, in which case they like to take to the streets with a demonstration.
Instead the Frenchman concentrates on enjoying food, flowers, life, love, food, sex, music, art, food, and (in Paris at least) motorcycles. He stays up all night, buys his bread just before he eats it, occasionally pees in the street, stands close to you when speaking, honks his horn to let people know he's in a hurry, dresses down, and goes places with his family. The Frenchman knows that the government doesn't work very efficiently, and has developed the famous Gallic shrug to express his inability to change things. The average Parisian must give more money to beggars and street musicians, because they're all over the place.
Paris is relatively expensive, but it is quite clearly the most cosmopolitan place in France, and Parisians, like New Yorkers, would rather die than be evicted from their cities. (Londoners, on the other hand, cherish the idea of getting out into the country.)
If we were, say, about ten to a hundred times richer than we are, we might feel differently about Paris, because then we could afford to stay in fancy hotel suites and eat at restaurants with some large number of Michelin stars. But we found that the food at a plain unstarred French restaurant was generally excellent; it's really hard to get a bad restaurant meal. And the experience of living in a fourth-floor walkup apartment was irreplaceable. Every day we looked out the window with wonder and delight.
We'll always be happy to return to France and to Paris, but we'd be uncomfortable living in France permanently because of the politics. We prefer the American style of government, leaving so much more power to the people.