I am the dunce of my family when it comes to learning foreign languages. Most of my school French lessons were spent giggling at the back with a Matt Goss fan called Becky Stradwick. So when I was asked to review a beginners' Spanish course at Academia Mester in Salamanca, I jumped at the chance of a fresh start with a new language.
"¡Hola! ¿Como estas?", asks Jesús, my new teacher. I'm fine, now that I've met him - he's a young, university-educated professional, like all of the teaching staff at the school. He's also blessed with a typically Spanish sunny nature, and oodles of patience. This is great for me because I'm nervous about how I'm going to cope with the lessons being purely in Spanish. The only vocabulary I seem to have retained from a fortnight in Tenerife is papel higienico (toilet paper).
Within seconds, I'm able to introduce myself and say where I'm from, and ask my Dutch classmate Paula to do the same. She and I are lucky - the school runs new courses at all levels every Monday, no matter how many or how few enrolments there are, and with just two of us in the class - the maximum class size is 10 - we get a lot of attention.
Mester is one of several Spanish language schools in Salamanca accredited by the Instituto Cervantes (the Spanish government's cultural centre). Salamanca is a university town 210km north of Madrid, famous for its exquisite main square (la Plaza Mayor), and something of a mecca for language teaching because its inhabitants speak a pure form of Spanish.
Paula and I have grammar with Jesús from 9am until 10.40am, then a chance for a quick drink in the coffee bar next to our bright, airy classroom, before conversation with Emilia from 10.50 until 12.30. Grammar comes first to give us a grounding in the structure of the language, and also because it is seen as a bit of a slog. But I find that the school, and Jesús, manage to make it fun. We learn how to pronounce the alphabet by playing hangman. And instead of working from text books, we use attractively designed booklets full of fun exercises, such as "name the Spanish celebrity" (Placido Domingo, Julio Iglesias, and so on).
Irregular verbs are the only bit I find dull. I start being naughty and checking in English with Jesús whether I have understood a few things correctly.
This isn't possible with Emilia, who doesn't speak English. Like Jesús, she is either a good actor or genuinely enjoys teaching unconfident beginners like me. By the end of my week-long visit (courses last up to one academic year) I'm able to tell the time, make (very) small talk with strangers, and describe at length the student apartment I am staying in.
Here's the rub. I would recommend staying with fellow students only if you are younger than 25, and fairly thick-skinned. At 29, I found the boozy antics of my younger flatmates - the average age of students at Mester is between 22 and 25 - a bit of a strain. And when I overheard one of them bitching about me for speaking to a Japanese girl in English (her English was better than my Spanish, so I'm not sure what the problem was), I wished I'd taken up the option of staying with a Spanish family. Thankfully, lots of the students were delightful, including Paula, and Christiaan (also Dutch), who came to my rescue when it turned out that my flat (which was simple and attractive) didn't have a tin opener. He hacked into my tin of beans with a knife, while dressed as the Grim Reaper - there was a fancy dress party at the school that night.
Mester is hot on organising extracurricular activities to help students relax and immerse themselves in the Spanish culture and language. Two or three events take place every day from 5pm, when the school reopens after lunch. Spanish films, or American films dubbed into Spanish, are shown. There are talks about history and culture, and dance classes.
Then there are weekend excursions, which include visits to some of Spain's major bull farms; and horse riding in the wild countryside around the town. My short stay didn't allow time for these, but I plan to return as soon as possible.
See www.mester.com for more details