Sunday Times

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Learning Italian

The student: there was a time when my flat fluttered with Post-It notes like bunting at a street party. Each scrap was scrawled with the Italian word for the item it was attached to - tavolo, sedia, insalata and so on. Of course, I was hopelessly in love with an Italian, and believed that learning the language would seal our romance. The Italian, however, spoke perfect English and I spoke English only. It was like dating a racing driver and obsessively playing Scalextric - although at least Scalextric is fun.

The school: Scuola Italia is a small, unfussy school set in part of a 19th-century town house in the intriguing, tourist-free Le Marche town of Urbania. It’s run by three teacher friends in their thirties, whose style is relaxed and informal - you do about four or five hours each day, split between the morning and afternoon. In my group of 16 is a giant ponytailed student baritone from the Karlsruhe conservatory; several Swiss, Dutch, Danes and Germans; a Turkish girl wanting to be a Bollywood star; and an older Singaporean lady whose garrulousness is breathtaking.

The course: on the first morning I’m somewhat fazed to find all the teachers speaking Italian at me. They seem like nice people, but I can’t understand what they are saying. I grin back at them, absently. Then we head off with our teacher, Carina, for a brief tour of the town - in Italian. I understand from her pointing that river must be fiume and church must be chiesa, but that’s about it. We file shyly into a trattoria, where Doddo, the owner, says buongiorno; into the butcher’s for a ciao from Frederico, and so on. It’s lovely how friendly everyone is, but hearing only Italian makes me feel disorientated, as though it’s wartime and we’re evacuee children being introduced to our new home.

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