— CNP

France

When do you know you’ve arrived? In Sweden, it was the first crunch of snow underfoot in the Landvetter carpark and air so cold it could bite your face off. In Borneo, it was the hot, clinging humidity in the air bridge. In Greece, it was the undeniable whiff of cheap aftershave mixed with dubious fiscal policies. This time, at Charles de Gaulle airport, it wasn’t the 150cm-tall policewoman with an 80cm-long assault rifle or the 50 centimes toilets, it was the sudden and instinctive loss of muscular tension at the gentle touch of 7am sunshine on a 30° day.

Today is Bastille Day and I wasn’t meant to be indoors. I’d planned to join a Finnish artist and a bunch of others on a 44km walk that would spiral through the centre of Paris’ numbered arrondissements, from the 20th to the 1st. Unfortunately, getting up at 5am to do so proved untenable after a sleeplessly muggy night listening to mosquitoes, firecrackers and general revelling. But more on that anon.

The first week here in France was spent in and around the Dordogne Valley. Two short wogs, père et fils, had the run of a cottage in the little village of Carennac in a part of France famed for its truffles, its foie gras and its history of cardiovascular disease. And when in Rome … so, much of our time in Carennac was spent lowering our fitness, raising our cholesterol and otherwise pushing strongly for a bout of gout.

Being at the Lot end of the Dordogne, rather than the more touristed Perigord, the local markets at Bretenoux were truly local and it soon became clear that the only person importing anything from outside the valley was the fromageur. Thus we found sustenance in stone fruits and berries, potato and leek, lettuce and tomato, pork and more pork, a little bit of extra pork, and quantities of cheese that I’m still digesting a week later (for those playing at home: Brie de Meaux, Tomme d’Estaing, Tomme de Savoie and Bethmale Vache, plus the pale, fatty goodness of Beurre des Charentes Grand Cru).

In between cooking, eating and watching the World Cup, we did manage somehow to raise our fatted arses from their rustic thrones and career around the winding roads to sightsee and the like. The region is unimpeachably lovely in the summer, with the humid heat making every inch of soil sprout a bounty of lush, chirping undergrowth beneath the enormous walnut and oak trees that forest the hills. Popping up every few kilometres are villages of old stone houses, sometimes lovingly restored to uberquaint perfection by Brits, sometimes pragmatically repaired with unbecoming cinder blocks by the locals, and occasionally refitted with glassy appendages by Germans. However, while the place is far from untouched, the narrow roads and lack of amenities keep the tourist buses away and the town squares humming with children and tractors rather than American accents.

I can’t claim to have seen a single tractor on the streets of Paris though. Tanks, fighter jets and other military miscellany, on the other hand, are in great supply today on the Champs Elysées — as are puffy dignitaries and very wet spectators. As the rain beats down and the lightning strikes, some of the baking heat trapped in the city’s cobbles and facades is being washed into the Seine to everyone’s relief.

As has become tradition when we’re in Paris, John and I have been startling council workers and homeward-bound drunkards by jogging the boulevards at 6am. The temperature is clement, the footpaths free, the smell of piss demure, and the city is almost entirely asleep. Indeed, it can be said quite definitively that Paris is not a morning person. Plenty of places don’t open til 11 and it can even be hard to get a baguette before 9. To top it off, my favourite new find, the Palais de Tokyo contemporary art space, restaurant, cooking school and general cool factory, is open from noon to midnight every day of the year. Yes, please!

Once the city gets going, the Marais, where we’re staying, bristles with the heady mix of people that comes from it being the orthodox Jewish quarter, the gay and lesbian quarter, the French hipster quarter and the young-american-with-a-trust-fund quarter. And, while I was loving the locavore cooking in Carennac, it’s nice to be back somewhere where terms like couscous, kibbeh, pho and polyunsaturated are used more commonly.

Ah, but now, the rain has paused. Perhaps only briefly. Or perhaps I’ll join the walkers when they get to the 10th.