I get by in Italian. I can be mannerly and appreciative, buy things, curse in a variety of dialects and make myself understood. But, being limited to structureless utterances that lack nuance, cheek or charm, I can't really be myself in Italian. So I have come to Verona to do a month's language course at LinguaIT ( linguait.it ), an on-the-ball school located in a grand palazzo.
A quick cappuccino alongside the Veronese bourgeoisie in Caffè Tubino sets me up for class. Each day we start by describing what we did the night before – but in the present. Beviamo dei bicchieri di Inama Soave alla Osteria Sottoriva (we drink glasses of the best Soave at Osteria Sottoriva) etc. The trick of learning a language is just to say it. I spend the month being shamelessly wrong and stupid.
Two hours of homework are dished out daily. You'd think having a chum in Verona – David Petrie, a lecturer at Verona University and a well-known scourge of the Italian state – would be a help. But no: he just gets me drunk and teaches me even more swear words.
The drama of Verona seems heightened in winter. One day it's retina-achingly bright, the next the sfumato caused by your frozen breath makes the Renaissance splendour rather eerie. From the pre-class panic of utter empty headedness to the post-class buzz that follows damned fine conjugation, if you are going to experience the highs and lows of learning to express yourself, the city is the perfect setting.
After a month I can slowly construct proper, interesting sentences and follow a dinner-party conversation. I can even contribute if fellow guests are prepared to hang about. A few weeks more and I might be able to talk of the past and the future. As it is, I remain stuck in the present tense. But Verona in the now is fine by me.
Footprint Venice & Veneto is out now (£13.99)