When I was a teacher of English in Prague I came into contact with adult Czechs everyday. Many of my lessons did not involve a book but were instead conversation lessons.
Whilst this is invaluable for my students, giving them a rare chance to speak English with an English person, it was also an eye opener for me, as I learned more and more about the Czech people, their attitudes and their values.
But recently, I had a few problems with the authorities here. I was arrested, banned from the country, (with a passport stamp to prove it), and a deportation order was served against me. I was given five days to leave but I was not given any reason for their actions.
At the time of the arrest, there were five of us. We were frog-marched out of a pub and made to stand facing a wall while we were searched. We were not allowed to speak or move our heads.
We were three whites, (one English and two American), and two Asians, (a Dutchman, and myself). I do not know what the police found on the Americans, but they were told to go back in the pub.
The other Englishman, a friend of mine, was also told to return to the pub, despite having no form of ID on him, and being found to be in possession of marijuana, which they confiscated.
The Dutchman and I presented our valid passports, and were searched while they were verified using a police computer. After the search had yielded nothing, and our passports had been verified, we were formally arrested, and taken to a police station to be deported.
This was by no means the first time I have had problems with the Czech authorities. (I have been assaulted with a baton, asked to pay bribes when in fact I've done nothing wrong, searched in the main drag in town in the middle of the day, and have to produce my ID on an almost weekly basis).
Even if I'm just nipping out for a packet of cigarettes, I have to remember to take my green card.. I know many people who live here, both legally and illegally, and of my white friends, the majority of them do not carry any form of identification. Why should they? They don't need it.
My girlfriend tells her friends and colleagues about some of the things that have happened to me. Everybody is agreed on two things. 1)It's terrible, he's such a nice lad, and 2) it's only happening to him because he looks like a gypsy. It is the second statement that galls me.
Firstly, in reality, I look nothing like a gypsy. The problem is that through narrow-mindedness, anybody who is neither white nor black in the eyes of a Czech must be a gypsy. The more broadminded Czechs may be well aware that I am not Romany, but I am still eyed with suspicion.
An empty seat on a crowded bus will remain empty if I am sitting next to it. All receipts must be kept until out of the shop, as I am invariably asked to produce them on leaving. And secondly, if I was a gypsy, the treatment I have received wouldn't be viewed as terrible.
When talking about gypsies with my students, the most common sentence I hear is: "I am not racist, but I don't like gypsy's". Clearly, the use of the word 'but' in this sentence implies that they've given an impression, but now they want to clarify and modify it. The Czechs claim the gypsys "Don't live like we do. We give them houses, and they don't look after them".
A small scale version of what many ex-pats think about the Czechs; They don't look after their environment. Prague has 6 times more pollution than the standard for a European Capital, thanks mainly to the motorway which runs right through the heart of the city. Paper and plastic are not recycled.
Hell, they don't even look after themselves; often drinking beer before midday, eating little fresh veggies and lots of greasy, fatty foods. In most village restaurants, you will find a bowl of bread on each table, complete with a tub of lard to spread on it.
But this is no reason to hate a people.
During my successful battle against deportation, my landlord drove me to the German border for a visa requirement. On the way, he slowed down as we were passing a field and pointed at some gypsys who were gathered round a fire.
Behind them, were two dilapidated caravans, one with a broken window. Still pointing at them, and laughing with derision, he said, "Look at the gypsy's. See how they live".
And then, in seriousness, he turned to me and said, "You know, I am not racist, but the gypsy's and their ways, make me laugh".
I thought, 'If that's humour, then you Cesky's are the laughing stock of Europe. Look at you; in your 10 year-old Skoda, with no heating or radio. Look how you lap up anything from the west; Levi's, McDonalds, mobile phones, etc. Look at your attitude to fidelity in marriage. Look at how long it takes to pick up a parcel from the post office, an event for which you need a day off of work.'
I said nothing.
The Czechs claim not to be racist, and in some degree they may be right. Racism in this country is a completely different concept. There are of course the skinheads who are the true racists, but normal Czech's have nothing against Africans, or me, once they learn I am English.
Here, the racism is subliminal.
You may shake your head scathingly, or stare menacingly at a gypsy on the tram, or in the metro. You'll have the full support of your fellow passengers. You may openly talk about your dislike of gypsies to complete strangers, (as happens from time to time in class), as the thought that somebody may not agree does not even enter your head. If they are not racist, they are culturally intolerant.
My girlfriend tells me the Roma here are despised by the people. They live in an environment where they are constantly viewed with suspicion, frequently beaten up, often arrested and imprisoned, and never, never, given any respect.
They cannot work because nobody trusts them, (besides, what would people say if you had a gypsy working for you?) so they are forced into crime, which increases the feeling of hatred towards them. They are accused of being lazy, and their way of life is not accepted. They are objects of scorn, and derision, and loathing.
While all this may not add up to enough to obtain refugee status, it is nonetheless, a pretty miserable existence.
And this is why the gypsys went to Dover.