Living la vida local

Helen Anderson spends her mornings learning Spanish and long evenings exploring the old city and new life of Madrid.

There's a dunce in the class. I open my Spanish textbook in a classroom in central Madrid and already I'm perspiring and past tense. Past anxious – si. Past tongue-tied – si, si. Juan, a teacher with dark good looks and an early 5 o'clock shadow, shoots a question at the mute newcomer, something curly about Cristobal Colon, or Christopher Columbus, and when my mouth falls open and a gargling sound issues forth the others in the class jump in, con gusto.

They've been together in class for a few weeks: a British construction worker, a Thai business graduate and an Italian model. (I'm pretty sure, reading the body language, at least two of them have been practising pillow Spanish.) Christopher Columbus was born in Genoa, he died in Valladolid, he discovered, he travelled – all in Spanish, all past tense. But I'm marooned in the present tense, unable yet to speak of the past nor the future. Like listening to a shortwave radio broadcast from the South Pole, I can comprehend drifts of conversation amid the white noise but I find I can't broadcast a word.

Before class, I explained to the courseco-ordinator that 15 years ago I learnt Spanish for a few weeks in Guatemala while backpacking through Central America. (Possibly I threw my hand over my shoulder to indicate the past tense or, just as likely, I'd boasted I'd been taking classes for 15 years.) I have not spoken more than a few words of Spanish (paella, tempranillo, tapas) since those carefree days.

During the coffee break, I gargle and gesticulate a little more wildly in front of the teacher. She seems to understand the extent of my retardation and, swiftly and mercifully, I'm placed in a class of two other newcomers with similar skills, mas o menos (more or less, a supremely useful term indicating the approximate nature of everything). Ruben is our teacher, another young man of dark good looks and early 5 o'clock shadow, and he calls us his tres chicas: me; Angela, a public servant from Seoul; and Sacha, a university student from Moscow. And our linguistic adventure begins.

I arrived in Madrid at the end of that long-ago trip. It was a (past) tense introduction to Spain. The rules had changed sometime in the six months since leaving home and I arrived to find that Australians now required a visa to enter Spain. At passport control, a volley of rapid, possibly unfriendly Spanish was aimed in my direction. My visa-less passport was confiscated, a policeman with a gun and a funny hat marched me to an airline counter and watched as I bought a blisteringly expensive return ticket leaving the next day to Lisbon, the nearest place to apply for a Spanish visa.

And yet in the next 24 hours – though almost penniless and an illegal alien – I fell for the city. I fell for the haughty formality of its grand avenues and public buildings, for the extraordinary works of Velazquez and Goya in the neoclassical Prado Museum and the carpe-diem spirit of the madrilenos I met. I fell for cheap Spanish reds and the sibilant lisping of Castilian Spanish. And when I returned from my unscheduled visit to Lisbon (another revelation), I slipped easily into the madrileno habit of late-night schmoozing and long siestas.

Back then I spoke enough Spanish to get around, though the simpler Latin American version, without the pooncy lisp. I spoke enough to know how much I had to learn.

Fast-forward. The man at passport control smiles at me this time and I'm back in Madrid. I ticked off the sites on my first visit. I'm not much good at shopping. Language, now that's the journey that never ends, so this time in Madrid I'll learn Spanish in the mornings and practise it for the rest of the day. I'll revisit some favourite places, discover some new ones and pretend I'm a madrilene for a week: live in the moment, enjoy friends, sleep only a little.

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Pilar offers a crash course. An art historian, fluent in three languages, she's my guide for a morning at Madrid's two great art institutions: the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia and the Museo Nacional del Prado. I remember the Prado's astonishing riches and they're one of the main reasons I've longed to return."I'll show you a few of my favourite works," Pilar says. "Just the caviar." Through her eyes I view some sublime works by Velazquez and Goya, Bosch and Rogier van der Weyden – a few of the crowd-pleasers and a few I might have otherwise passed – and we wander through the extended wings, designed by the great Spanish architect Rafael Moneo and opened in 2007. The Reina Sofia, which holds Picasso's famous Guernica and other contemporary art, has also had a big-statement extension, by French architect Jean Nouvel. Even the humble tapa has had a makeover nearby. The terrace at Estado Puro is full on this spring Sunday, so we take a table inside, under a ceiling of paper peinetas, the traditional Spanish combs, and join the crowd tucking into deconstructed croquetas jamon (ham croquettes) and tortilla Espanola siglo XXI ("Spanish tortilla for the 21st century").

I'm staying in a hotel between the museums and the barrio de las Letras, where a maze of streets off Calle de las Huertas is named after Iberian literary figures and packed with fine old bars and cafes – where no one has replaced the wonky carved ceilings and old-fashioned hand-painted tiles with stainless steel and blond wood.

"Let me show you my favourite places," says Pilar and we plunge into a steamy Madrid night. It's still early, 8pm, and the neighbourhood won't come to life until at least 10. Here's a pulperia, serving only octopus and Galician white wines from the north; there's a cafe serving nothing but little plates of sizzling garlicky prawns; another place is best known for its oxtail stew. Past flamenco clubs, past Cafe Central, with live jazz at 10 every night.

I do my deberas (homework) over breakfast at my hotel, with help from three elderly women on a shopping trip to the capital. Spaniards are proud of their language – the third most commonly spoken in the world. But I find almost everyone, even waiters and shopgirls, is remarkably tolerant, encouraging even, of beginners.

Things move quickly in class. There are three of us and two teachers – Ines and Ruben, who change mid-morning – so we're pushed along at a clip. Importantly, we're forced to speak for four hours, in which time it doesn't matter how bad the pronunciation nor clumsy the construction. We muddle our way through Q and As: where we've come from, telling the time, occupations, exchanging phone numbers, navigation, over and over – and while we're trotting through the exercises we're collecting verbs and vocabulary.

Tandem Madrid is a busy, independent language school in an airy 19th-century palace just behind Parliament House and a short walk to the green lungs of Retiro Park and the art museums. The classes are kept small and the immersion is kicked along by afternoon sessions: the latest Almodovar film followed by coffee and discussion, a train trip to Segovia, a museum tour. One afternoon I join a group of advanced students on Ruben's "ghostly" walking tour, from the inquisitions of Plaza Mayor to beheadings in La Latina. Though much of what he says in Spanish flies past, at times I believe my ear is tuning to the singsong cadence of the language. In any case, Ruben's tour is a chance to explore new neighbourhoods and enjoy a cerveza at the end. "Don't just learn the language," urges Tandem's Mercedes Guerrero with her usual brio, "live it!"

As my nights get later and my deberas less diligent, it becomes clear madrilenos don't get enough sleep. The most common response to the customary morning greeting "Que tal?" is "Cansado" (tired). Though many shops close for a few hours in the afternoon, most businesses keep the same hours as the rest of Europe and the siesta is dying, or at least very tired.

I, for one, valiantly uphold the tradition. I rise early, engage the concierge in small talk (he humours me by conversing in Spanish, when it would be easier for him to switch to English). I conjugate over breakfast and stroll to class at nine, past my favourite spot – a vertical garden clinging to the side of CaixaForum, a power station converted recently to a contemporary art museum. I chat to the barista who makes my morning espresso near the language school and I do my best to order lunch in fully formed sentences. I take my siesta seriously. Then I'll wander in a new barrio, join my fellow estudiantes for a guided walk or, one afternoon, do some shopping along Chueca's legendary shoe street, Calle de Augusto Figueroa, and nearby Calle Fuencarral, lined with quirky boutiques. The underground metro system is easy to use and, at €1 a throw, it's muy barato (cheap, but you knew that).

It's said Madrid has 300,000 bars, possibly a conservative estimate, and many of them are exceedingly hip. I'm drawn, however, to a bar that hasn't had a change of menu or decor for 50 years or more. "It's run by anarchists," says Pilar, "they don't believe in tipping." La Venencia is a dark, narrow bar with smoke-stained walls, a rotary-dial public phone, a pre-electric cash register and a few worn tables at the back. It serves excellent jerez (Andalucian sherry) for €2 a glass, green olives and a little chorizo and nothing else. There is no concession to fashion or taste – the newest antique sherry poster was hung in the early '60s – yet the place is busy whenever I drop in and the conversation always lively. Hot topics are la gripe porcina (swine flu) and unemployment, running at 17 per cent, or nearly 4 million Spaniards.

On my last night I join Pilar and her partner, Diego, at their favourite restaurant. I've asked directions three times but I've got here in Spanish, so I'm feeling triumphant. Luis, the owner of Entrevinos, shows me a list of 350 wines, half of them Spanish, and the food is amazing value, inventive and deceptively simple – running counter to the prevailing Spanish fashion of molecular gastronomy, pioneered by Ferran Adria.

It's taken a week but the synapses are finally firing in my final class. Las tres chicas are conjugating with some confidence, we're starting to make lame jokes and word play during our ejercicios (there's three lisps in that word), even the young barista downstairs appears to understand some pithy observation I make about his coffee. Just one more week and I'd be almost Spanish. Just one more week and I'd be able to describe the past and embark on the future.

Helen Anderson travelled courtesy of the National Tourist Office of Spain, Singapore Airlines and Tandem Madrid.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Singapore Airlines flies to Barcelona via Singapore for about $1896 (low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney, including tax). The author spent a few days in Barcelona, then took the popular high-speed train to Madrid: 2 hours, from €110 ($186) one way; see www.renfe.com.

Learning there Tandem Madrid is an independent school in the heart of Madrid with small classes and a wide range of courses. The author took an intensive week-long course, comprising 20 hours of classes, for €205. Optional afternoon activities are included. See tandem-madrid.com.

Staying there

Hotel Husa Paseo del Arte is a four-star hotel near the city's art museums and Atocha Station. Rooms from €119. See hotelhusapaseodelarte.com.

Roommate Alicia is a funky, 34-room boutique hotel in the heart of the Las Letras district. Rooms from €115.

Eating and drinking there

La Venencia, off Plaza de Santa Ana, serves nothing but jerez and a few basic tapas. Orders are chalked on the bar. Calle de Echegaray 7.

Estado Puro, serving tapas with a twist, is close to the Paseo del Prado and its museums, with a sunny terrace at the front. Plaza Canovas del Castillo 4, phone +34 913 302 400.

Entrevinos has a splendid wine list and inventive dishes with the feel of a neighbourhood taverna. Ferraz, 36, closest metro Plaza de Espana. See entrevinos.net.

Taberna Alhambra is an Andalucian tiled bar, utterly authentic, with oxtail stew as its specialty. Calle Victoria 9. See tabernaalhambra.es.

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