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Michael: 1 week Private Tuition

“On my first morning in Valencia, Maria, my hostess, realised that I had had a cold shower because the boiler was not turned on. She took me out on the balcony, where her rabbit was thumping around in its cage, showed me the boiler, and explained how to twiddle its knobs and fire it up with the piezoelectric lighter. Then she went over it all again and, with a smile I would see often that week, asked me if I understood. I said I did, but I wasn’t 100 per cent sure, for the instructions were entirely in Spanish.

I had tried to concentrate, but her words were elbowed out of my head by pictures – pictures of an incinerated rabbit, of people leaping away from a flaming balcony, and of headlines in the local paper saying that a family of three had been left homeless because one of the language students to whom they had given room had burnt down their flat. It would be safer, I decided, to stick to cold showers. Refreshing, too, for it was only May and already the temperature in Valencia was in the late twenties.

Spain’s third-largest city, best known for the pyrotechnical wizardry it demonstrates every March in the Fiesta de las Fallas, is now drawing tourists year round with its City of Arts and Sciences, a complex that, like Bilbao’s Guggenheim, is not just a repository but an exhibit in its own right. It is also drawing language students, thanks to the high reputation of its teaching, its location on the Mediterranean and its nightlife, which is almost as lively as its fireworks.

At 48, I was at least twice the age of the average student. I had come late to the language, learning initially with tapes and CDs. Though I had recently enrolled in a class, and felt I was making progress at reading and writing, I still found conversation difficult. Like many a late learner, I was trying to get everything in grammatical good shape before opening my mouth. Result: a tied tongue. A week’s total immersion, I reckoned, would do me good.

Katherine Brand, of CESA, to whom I was introduced by a colleague, agreed. Her company, based in Lanner, Cornwall, has 25 years’ experience of arranging language-study programmes overseas. I could spare a week, and hoped to make the most of it by having one-to-one lessons and staying with a family. Not wanting to be tied down to meal-times, I suggested bed and breakfast only. Katherine persuaded me to go for half board, arguing that I would be missing out on a slice of Spanish life if I didn’t share at least some evening meals with my hosts. As it turned out, she was right.

The first evening, though, was a bit of a trial. On arriving at the flat, in the district of Monteolivete and close to the City of Arts and Sciences, I found not only my hosts, José-Luis and Maria, and her 16-year-old son, Jesús, but also Alexis, a 20-year-old Frenchman who had been staying with them for three months and who intended to teach Spanish. Alexis was as patient as he was fluent, but I still felt a bit out of my depth.

What would be the pattern for the week was established. At about 8.30pm we students would sit down in the living-cum-dining-room, Maria would serve our food, and José-Luis, who runs an office-design business, would join us to set conversational balls rolling and – occasionally – deliver a lecture. He apologised early for being what we would call a chatterbox – un parlanchín.

But he was encouraging and entertaining, too. The conversation touched on regional identity in Spain – a favourite subject of José-Luis, who describes himself as Valenciano rather than Spanish – American policy in Iraq, the respective merits of red wine and white and the films of Ken Loach. I listened and nodded, my understanding surpassing my ability to make much of a contribution. It was a relief when Alexis suggested a walk to the City of Arts and Sciences, which, late in the evening, largely empty, with its buildings in the shapes of fish mouths and space helmets, felt like a science-fiction set awaiting the arrival of the aliens.

The following morning, after a typically brief Spanish breakfast – coffee and a slice of bread and butter – I travelled to the language school by bus with my other fellow student, Anna, a bubbly 23-year-old from Kansas City who had been with the family for more than a month. The stimuli provided by foreign countries are doubled when you’re learning a language in situ, and the No 18 bus was an education in itself. Screens hung over the aisle displayed a constant stream of pictures and information – snippets of news, ads for family days out in Benidorm, reminders that the autobanco of the blood transfusion service would be awaiting donors that day at the Plaza del Ayuntamiento.

Anna’s school was in one part of the university district, mine in another: a tree-lined passageway where old men gathered in mid-morning to play pelota. It was in a modern, light-filled building with 24 classrooms, a library and video room, a small cafe, and a computer room with about 20 terminals offering free access to the internet.

After a briefing from the friendly administrative staff, I was straight into classes with Cristina, my teacher for the week, and comparing notes on the weather. I started to tell her that there was a ban in London on the use of – what? Something for which I didn’t know the word in Spanish. Flicking through the dictionary, I learnt that hosepipes were mangueras. She was sympathetic: Spain is heading for its worst drought since 1947, and Valencia is one of the areas suffering most.

I had booked lessons from 9.30 till 11.30, then again from 1.30 to 2.30. The break allowed me to have a rest and a coffee, wander round the area (la zona, as opposed to el barrio, which was the neighbourhood in which I was staying) and make a few notes on what we had covered and what I wanted to do later.

Quirks in the language or the Spanish way of life threw up questions that I could put to Cristina immediately. Estate agents’ windows, I noticed, had prices not only in euros but in pesetas; why was that? Because when it comes to big purchases such as properties and cars, she explained, the Spanish, even after four years of using the euro, still like to see the figures in old money.

And why, when Estados Unidos (United States) was abbreviated in my copy of the daily paper El Pais, was it rendered as EE UU? The double initial was a way of representing a plural (as we still do in English with some words of Latin origin: P for page and PP for pages).

Class over, I wandered off through the city, under lilac trees heavy with blossom, to find somewhere to have lunch. On that first day, in the baroque heart of Valencia, yards from such tourist sights as the cathedral, I found a snug, dark-panelled place called Patos (Ducks) where a three-course menu del día with wine cost €14 (£9.60) and where the waiters and waitresses, starting their lunch just as I finished, invited me to join them in a glass of wine.

Conversation was undemanding. No more was required of me than a few pleasantries about the city and the hospitality of its people. When I felt myself drying up, I said gracias and adios and slipped out.

Back in the apartment, over la cena, the evening meal (which ranged from steamed hake to home-made burgers), more of an effort was needed. José-Luis believes that we are living in a world where hay medios de comunicación pero no hay comunicación – it’s all technology and no talk – and is doing his singlehanded best to redress the balance. Accustomed to being on my own when travelling, and to sharing my evening meal only with a good book, I found the level of concentration needed both demanding and draining. By 11 every evening, in this city renowned for its nightlife, I was ready for bed.

Towards the end of the week, though, total immersion was beginning to pay off. From time to time, I found I had unconsciously scribbled the odd Spanish word or phrase when making notes about the city.

Cristina, knowing that I was interested in areas beyond the obvious tourist sights, recommended a coming-of-age novel by a local author, Manuel Vicent, set in the beachside district of Malvarrosa. I took the tram there, chanced upon a fireworks shop and was struck by how many of its offerings had British names. Did Valencia, renowned for its fireworks, buy them in Britain?

I went in intending to ask that one question, which was all I would have felt capable of a week earlier, but the proprietor, Pepe, proved as passionate about fireworks as José-Luis is about communication. Ten minutes later I was still there, having learnt along the way that the fireworks with British names were made by the Chinese (who find English names sell well), that they were of the low-strength kind sold to the public, and that (proud smile here from Pepe) the biggest bangs were all still locally made.

On the Friday morning my own pride was dented when Maria, over breakfast, teased me that I still wasn’t speaking enough. I needed to open up. That night, José-Luis found an answer. When we three students had eaten, and he and Maria had had their own meal, he called me in and opened a bottle of scotch. We chatted about Monteolivete and how it had changed over the past 50 or 60 years, from huerta – agricultural land – farmed by Valencianos to a residential district whose occupants included everyone from Madrileño doctors to Pakistani greengrocers. We talked about Picasso and Franco and families. When I next looked at my watch it was 1.30am.

On the way home the following afternoon, my conversations with the taxi driver en route to the airport and with the Spanish pensioners who sat next to me on the plane were longer than they would have been had we met a week earlier. I had gained in confidence and vocabulary. I had learnt the truth of that generous Spanish phrase ”Mi casa es su casa”(literally: my house is your house). And the time had passed en un abrir y cerrar de ojos – in a blink of the eye.”