Ten and more years ago J. and I set ourselves to learn Spanish. Every morning at breakfast out came Hugo's Spanish In Three Months. It had an old-fashioned, grammatical approach to language teaching, which we both appreciated, even if the photo on the cover appeared - according to the address on the back - to represent 104 Judd Street, London: a London landmark which had so far passed us by. We made reasonable progress, chattered to each other self-consciously in basic Spanish, and swapped the odd Spanish expression, just for fun, with some of the Spanish-speaking people in the village, of which there are a few, mostly descendants of refugees from the Spanish Civil War.
Then disaster struck. Just as we'd reach el fin in Hugo, with its choice of imperfect subjunctives, just what every elementary language student needs over the croissants and Yorkshire Gold, we went on a 48-hour trip to San Remo, not far beyond the Franco-Italian border. We both have a basic level of Italian. Would any of it come out that night in a San Remo restaurant called '88'? Would it il mio culo.
But the Spanish streamed out as generously as the tagliatelle they served us.
Then a month or two later J. and I took ourselves off for a weekend to one of those pearls of the Mediterranean on the Spanish Costa Brava that we discovered by accident and that nobody seems to know about. Catastrophe struck. All that breakfast Spanish so laboriously garnered had gone. Buzzed off. Vamoosed. Vanished, apart from one or two stock phrases like hay siempre algun jaleo i.e. there's always something that goes wrong.
No problem with Italian, of course. Out it gushed unbidden in all its rich and rounded fullness, like the Rioja they served us.
This would have been a serious setback, had it not been for the fact that everyone's mother tongue in that part of the world isn't Spanish at all, but Catalan. H'm. Back to square 1...
More of these linguistic pretensions next time, but meantime I'd better do something to justify the title. Do enjoy the period photo above, especially the very 1950s fireside compendium.
'Woman Dancing with her Cat': © Meyer Ostroff/Corbis 2002