There comes a point in every language student's life when a period of practical exposure is needed in order for you really to progress. My chance came when I signed up for a month of classes at the Istituto Venezia, a language school for foreigners in the heart of La Serenissima, which also gave me the opportunity to live a bit more like a local in one of the world's most entrancing cities.
Home for my four weeks was a light-filled, first-floor apartment with views of a small canal. It was almost opposite the Angelo Raffaele church, whose campo (the Venetian version of a square) was the setting for Sally Vickers' novel Ms Garnet's Angel. This shabbier corner of the city was traditionally home to Venetian sailors and fisherman, most long since gone, but it still retains a slightly down-at-heel air, with few hotels and a fewer tourists: a small window on the real Venice. It might not have been the Grand Canal, but as far as I was concerned, it was all the better for it.
The Istituto Venezia was perfect. My month-long "Super Intensivo" course translated into four hours of group classes per day followed by one-to-one tuition in the afternoons, with plenty of time for exploration. The school was housed in a handsome building reached by a steep flight of steps just off the Campo Santa Margherita, the main haunt of Venice's sizeable student population. Locals and inquisitive tourists congregated in this yawning sun-drenched square edged by shops, bars and cafés, with tables spilling out into the centre.
My dozen or so classmates were more of a mixed bag than I had anticipated: a 45-year-old Japanese lady with an impeccable grasp of Italian grammar, some pensioners from Vienna, two youthful Swedish students, a young French au pair, a Russian who wanted to be a tour guide and a Brazilian with her heart set on studying architecture at one of Venice's two universities.
Every morning as I stepping out along my daily route to school on the Fondamenta Briati, I was greeted by scenes of Venetians going about their daily business. The rubbish barge made its slow progress collecting bags left out overnight; boats honked horns warning of their progress down the narrow canal; wine and olive oil was delivered on wide flat barges; and gaggles of students hurried to class.
In Venice daily chores take on another dimension. Trips to the nearest supermarket were transformed by a sky washed with a dusky pink sunset like a Canaletto painting. Posting a letter resulted in an impromptu circuit of churches such as the intimate Church of San Sebastiano, with its richly painted frescoes by Veronese; the dwarfing grandeur of Santa Maria della Salute; or the quiet charms of the 13th-century San Nicolo dei Mendicoli, set in the farthest corner of Dorsoduro. I spent one post-class afternoon surrounded by the Gothic splendour of Ca'Rezzonico, one of the city's most opulent Baroque palaces.
Venice is made for aimless wandering: peering through railings to secret, flower-filled gardens, or strolling down the broad Zattere, which edges the Giudecca Canal (where I was unexpectedly engulfed by a mist worthy of a Tiepolo painting). There was plenty of time to get lost and soak up the atmosphere.
When I arrived, my understanding of Italian grammar was about as clear as the water in one of its canals, but the constant repetition and patient explanations of our teachers began to pay off. Much of the emphasis was on improving our conversational skills with reading, debates, games and even the occasional (cringe-worthy) bout of singing. Conversations snatched on benches in the Campo Santa Margherita began to make more sense, as did the jokes of one of the Campo's fish sellers (where I could buy a kilo of clams for just €5/£4.20).
Not being confined to a student's budget also had its advantages. Dinners at Antiche Trattoria Carampane, a small restaurant set down a dead end in a silent alleyway in Rialto, were an opportunity to sample the local speciality of molleche, deep-fried tiny crabs. Another night it could be pan-fried, finger-thin razor clams at Alle Testiere, an even smaller gem tucked down a tiny alleyway near Campo Santa Maria Formosa.
Then there was the daily elevenses standing at the bar of Gobbetti, one of the city's best patisseries and a handy 20 metres from the school gates, which was the best place to fortify myself with a crema-filled croissant and a cappuccino before two hours of wrestling with the passato prossimo. Barely a night went by without indulging in the early-evening cicchetti, the Venetian equivalent of tapas, with a small glass of wine and a piece of bread smeared with baccala mantecato, a delicious creamy paste of dried salted cod and olive oil.
Conversations with locals in faltering Italian were another path towards improvement. Gianni Basso quietly plies his trade from his printing shop in a far-flung corner of Cannaregio, where he makes hand-stamped calling cards and stationery. Despite his sizeable international clientele, Basso feels strongly when it comes to the future. "Kent to Castello, Mayfair to Dorsoduro, non mi piace," he said as he flicked through his pile. He was referring to the growing number of foreigners buying up apartments in the city's six districts. "They buy apartments, stay for two weeks, then leave and don't contribute anything to the life of the city", he adds. "It's not good."
It's hard to disagree with Basso. The local population is now at an all-time low of less than 60,000; most residents have been driven out by high property prices and the practicalities of living on an island. Take a trip down the Grand Canal after sunset and you will only see a sprinkling of opulent palazzi with their lights burning. Walk around late at night and you risk not a mugging, but the possibility of getting lost without meeting a single soul who knows the city well enough to give directions. Local life is slowly being squeezed out by tourism.
Gradually I discovered the short cuts – the traghetti (gondolas that function as cross-canal ferries) favoured by Venetians to cross the Grand Canal where there are no bridges, and the sotoportegos (underpasses) – until the jigsaw of the city began to link together in my mind. I learnt only to visit St Mark's at night when the tourists and pigeons have dispersed, and that washing hung out to dry often ends up looking like a Jackson Pollock, courtesy of the local seagulls. I also learnt the mysteries of the future conditional and the congiuntivo.
Henry James wrote of Venice: "You desire to embrace it, to caress it, to possess it and finally a soft sense of possession grows up and your visit becomes a perpetual love affair". As far as I'm concerned, Venice, "si", relative pronouns, "no".
Istituto Venezia (00 39 041 52 24 331; www.istitutovenezia.com).
Venetian Apartments (020-3178 4180; www.venice-rentals.com) offers apartments to let including Angelo Raffaele, an apartment sleeping up to the three people, for €€995 (£829) per week.
Antiche Trattoria Carampane, San Polo 1911, Rio Terra de la Carampane (00 39 415 24 01 65; www.antichecarampane.com).
Alle Testiere , Calle del Mondo Novo, Castello 5801 (00 39 041 52 27 220).
Gobbetti, Dorsoduro 3108B, Rio Terra Canale (00 39 041 52 89 014).Reuse content