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Vocational Study

Courses to change your life

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With the torrent of mince pies, chain letters, and gift lists that rain down on us at this time of the year, it can sometimes be easy to identify with those scatologically splattered souls damned by their gluttony to the third tier of hell in Dante's Inferno.

But relief can be found from the crapulous indulgence of the party season. For some it is a chance to start indulging their curiosity, not just their gullet. And with the New Year approaching new opportunities to broaden your horizons rather than your waistline are popping up all over the place.

For Londoners there is no better place to start than at Christie's. The world famous auction house starts a new term of wine-tasting and history-of-art courses in January, with weekly evening classes exploring themes from art in antiquity through Caravaggio to contemporary art. At £125 per five-week course, or £30 a lecture, the evening classes offer the same quality as Christie's famous year-long courses without the commitment of time and money.

On her way to check out the Turner Prize nominees at Tate Britain, one Christie's student, Nelly Yona, 41, tells me how, when she moved to London earlier this year, she was determined to make as much of her time here as possible. "Seeing the exhibitions tickled my fancy," she says. "I wanted a course that would give me the tools to enjoy them, and the course is excellent."

If your passion is for the beauty of the grand design, the environmental charity Earthwatch has the answer, with dozens of 10- to 21-day expeditions doing environmental research around the world. Elaine Massie, 36, was looking for something as different as possible from her job in insurance when she went on her first Earthwatch expedition in 1998. She fell in love with the projects and has done 14 since, the latest a trip to Canada to monitor grey whale populations that saw her kayaking up the west coast watched by curious porpoises and seals. "It's really good fun," she says. "You see so much more than a normal tourist and you're part of a community." And you don't need any scientific know how to get involved. "You just need enthusiasm," she says. "They'll teach you everything else." Expeditions cost from £200 to £1,900. To find out more go to their website at www.earthwatch.org

The best way to learn a language is in its native country. The problem is finding a good school when you're on the other side of the world. The International Association of Language Colleges (IALC) does that for you. Just log on to www.ialc.org.

Gladis Garcia-Soza, senior teaching fellow at Essex University, has been sending her students on four week courses at the IALC's school in Valencia for the last 20 years. "It's an explosion for them when they first get there," she says. "And when they come back they're speaking like a native speaker."

Learning something new always gives you a fresh perspective and outlook. It's a source of excitement and surprise. Which is more than can be said for the presents most of us will be getting at the end of the month.