I am 74 and interested in languages. In particular I would love to speak better Italian. Recently, I see very few opportunities to further this ambition, especially for someone of my age. I have done family stays but feel this now becomes difficult. Courses seem mainly aimed at the young. In package tours one is surrounded by the English. My husband is not a linguist but would happily accompany me if the area offered interesting places to visit.
Jill Crawshaw replies: I am full of admiration for you - there's no reason why you shouldn't improve your Italian, and have an excellent holiday with your non-linguist husband at the same time!
I have looked at the language course holidays offered by some British tour operators, but quite honestly, I don't think they are suitable for you - for one thing, you say in your letter that you don't want to be surrounded by the English, and inevitably you would be.
My suggestion is to look out for a cheap return flight to whichever destination you choose, and pre-book a language course in one of the country's beauty spots. The organisation I shall suggest can make arrangements for you and your husband to stay either with a family (the best solution, as you'd be improving your knowledge of the language all the time - or in a modest hotel or guest house.
I like the look of the Centro Linguistico in the centre of Florence which runs various courses for small groups, with 20 lessons a week. The cost for a fortnight will be around pounds 185. You can both stay on a B&B basis with a family they will find for you, and for which for the two of you will pay another pounds 300 or so for the two weeks.
The Scucle Leonardo da Vinci gives you a choice of Florence again, Rome or Siena, offering a "Holiday Course" of two weeks which costs under pounds 150. Family B&B accommodation for you and your husband for two weeks will cost around pounds 270.
If you watch the advertising column of the Independent on Sunday, you should find flights to Florence for about pounds 160 each, the classes for you alone will be about pounds 180 and accommodation, for two in the region of pounds 170 - a total of pounds 770.
You should contact the Italian Institute (tel: 0171 235 1461), and the Italian Tourist Office (tel: 0171 408 1204), and they will send you a mass of literature. The two organisations I've named are: Centro Linguistico, Via del Corso 1, 50122 Firsenze, Italy (tel: 0039 55 210592). The Scuola Leonardo da Vinci in Rome is at Corso V Emanuele 39, 00186 Rome, Italy (tel: 0039 6 6798896).
Jill Crawshaw is a travel expert, writer and broadcaster.
WHAT'S THE BEST WAY TO TRAVEL THROUGH THE US BY RAIL?
I AIM to take a three-month break exploring the US by train from east to west. Is there some sort of inclusive rail deal?
John Pitt replies: AMTRAK, which operates virtually all passenger trains in the US, can arrange customised deals according to your individual itinerary, including travel, lodging and tours as well as air and sea travel if required. Another possibility is the Amtrak Rail Pass which allows unlimited travel for up to 30 days. The national version covers the whole country and there are regional ones with starting prices at US$155. Passes must be bought outside the USA.
Maps showing all Amtrak routes can be found in my guidebook USA by Rail (see below) or by writing to Amtrak, Washington Union Station, 60 Massachusetts Avenue NE, Washington DC 2002. Most long-distance trains require reservations and you should make these as early as possible if you plan to travel at busy times. Sleepers must also be reserved, but are remarkable value since they save on hotel bills and include all meals in the dining car. You save even more by sleeping overnight in Coach Class which has comfortable reclining seats and free pillows.
So far as time-keeping is concerned, Amtrak is to some extent at the mercy of freight operators which own most tracks. Where it has complete control, as on the route between New York and Washington, speeds and punctuality are excellent. Elsewhere train travel is predominantly a leisure activity, with top speeds rarely rising about 70 mph. The slower pace is an advantage when trains pass through some of the country's most spectacular scenery.
UK agents offering tickets, reservations and passes include Trailfinders (0171 938 3232) and Leisurail (01733 335599). Bicycles will be accepted on most trains although occasionally only in containers (provided by Amtrak). Reservations are usually necessary and there may be a nominal charge.
John Pitt is author of 'USA by Rail', published by Bradt Publications (tel: 01494 873478) for pounds 10.95.
IN THE AIR
I AM 47 and in very good health. I have fillings in my teeth but have always looked after them. On a long-haul flight last summer, however, I experienced dreadful toothache and this recurred on the way back. I would like to fly long-haul again this year - how can I prevent the same thing happening?
Dr Larry Goodyer replies: Atmospheric pressure changes can cause quite intense pain in filled teeth, a problem sometimes experienced by deep sea divers. The problem, called Areodontalgia, is well know to dentists but as commercial airlines are pressurised the problem is rarely encountered. Pain can occasionally be felt, however, if there is a space for gas to collect underneath a filling or tooth. Suggest this to your dentist who can look for an offending filling. Other alternatives are that a recently filled tooth was still slightly inflamed and aggravated by the flight, or that you had some sinusitis where pain in the upper molars might be confused with a dental problem.
It is a good idea for all travellers to have a dental check up, particularly if the destination has poor medical facilities. Make sure that any current work is completed.
If you have to be treated while away remember that dental surgery could carry a risk of contracting Aids or hepatitis B if equipment is not sterilised properly, particularly needles for local anaesthetic injections. Many sterile kits for travellers will include a dental needle. Ensure the dentist wears rubber gloves.
"DIY" repair kits are fiddly. Use only if there would be a considerable delay before a dentist could be found.
A dental abscess should be the most serious problem encountered. Regular sufferers of this condition could consider travelling with a supply of the appropriate antibiotic.
Dr Larry Goodyer is superintendent of the Nomad Pharmacy (3-4 Turnpike Lane, London N8, Tel: 0181-889 7014) which specialises in catering for travellers' medical needs.