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Classroom with a View

Joanne O'Connor of The Observer takes a Spanish course in Cusco, Peru.

I still have bad dreams about my school French exchange, more than 20 years after the event.

Strained dinner table conversations with my French family; the plate of cold leeks, which I was given as an hors d'oeuvre every night; the attic full of antelope body parts that I had to walk through to get to my bedroom (the father was a taxidermist); Martine the teenage tearaway climbing out of her bedroom window so she didn't have to hang out with her swotty 13- year-old English penpal. It was the longest two weeks of my life.

It was with some trepidation then, that I found myself contemplating the prospect of a Spanish language holiday and home-stay in Peru. But the opportunity to realise two long-held ambitions in one holiday - to improve my Spanish and to see Machu Picchu - proved irresistible.

My misgivings evaporate the moment I am met by my 'surrogate' family, the Rojas, at Cusco airport. They greet me warmly. Carlos is an optician and Carmucha owns a restaurant, and they live in a comfortable house right in the centre of town. They have four children, ranging in age from nine to 18 years old.

On arrival at the house I'm given coca tea and shown to my bedroom. Carmucha gives me a set of keys and the youngest child, Roberto, solemnly lends me his Mickey Mouse keyring to use for the week. I am whisked off to a family friend's birthday party, where I understand no one and nothing apart from the bit where they sing Happy Birthday. By the end of the evening my face aches from smiling uncomprehendingly for six hours, and I fall into bed wondering what I've let myself in for.

The following morning Carmucha announces that she is going to take me to school. Not only does she walk me to school, but she also insists on waiting outside the classroom and waving at me as I sit my placement test. I feel 13 years old again.

While waiting to be assigned a teacher, I get to know my new school chums. We are from England, America, New Zealand, Holland and Sweden. We are aged between 19 and 48, and spending an average of two weeks to a month studying Spanish here in Cusco before spending some time travelling around South America.

The director of the school gives us an introductory briefing. From flights and Inca Trail tours to extra blankets at night, it seems there is nothing the school cannot fix for us.

After sitting the placement test, we are assigned a teacher for the week and, as the school is not too busy, we are all impressed/alarmed to learn that tuition will be one-on-one. This is a pretty impressive ratio, though even in high season the maximum class size swells to only four pupils.

The school has a plum location right on Cusco's main drag, the Avenida del Sol, and my classroom window looks out onto the Qoricancha, the former Inca temple of the Sun. Not that gazing out of the classroom is much of an option when you are the only student in the class. Using the results of the test, my teacher Wilfredo, is able to pinpoint with impressive accuracy which areas I need to work on and without further ado, we get down to work.

As the week unfolds, I slip into a routine. Four hours of classes in the morning, back home for a huge lunch with the family, and afternoons free for sightseeing or to join in one of the school’s excellent extracurricular activities such as dance classes and cookery lessons. It's only fair to warn you that Cusco will do everything it can to lure the feckless student away from his or her homework. It's all too easy to swap verb conjugations for a swift Cusqueña beer in a bar overlooking the beautiful Plaza de Armas.

By the end of the week, a strange thing starts to happen: the dinner-table chatter, which at first was so much 'white noise', starts to have some meaning and, miraculously, I can follow the thread of the conversation. I may not be able to make a profound and interesting contribution, but at least I know when to laugh now.

Best of all, I have laid my French exchange demons to rest, and when Carlos asks if I will come back and visit next year, I find myself saying yes. And meaning it.

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