They Love Me, They Love Me Not
By Kamal Sunavala

The last few weeks have shown me a strange side to the Czech people. Before this comes out as badly as it possibly could, me having a strange and distinctly un-English knack of managing that sometimes, let me assure the people reading this piece that I don't mean to offend their sensibilities nor do I condone what they do. It is merely an observation.

Prague as we all know is a busy city and gets busier when the tourists flood in as they have started doing since April. It is indeed wonderful to walk down the alleyways leading to Týnská and hear a medley of Italian, German, Dutch and French. It is equally disturbing to hear Czech people passing by, cursing the 'damn tourists'. I understand Czech better than I can speak it. At first, I was in complete agreement and was annoyed by the ambling pace of the tourists who exclaimed 'how gorgeous' at every building and shop they passed by. Some of us do work and we can't be bothered with the odd Frenchman who is arguing with his companion about 'ze terrheeble taste of ze Czech wine' although it's hardly surprising that they would think that. They who are so threatened by the potential of Moravian wine that they have sealed the Czech fate in the Common Agricultural Policy which will be applicable to the Czechs once they join the EU.

So while I sympathised with my Czech mates against the French (oh dear, the English-French thing again!) I began to wonder if they indeed resented the presence of foreigners in this country. More and more, as I wandered around Můstek and Václavské Náměstí or even just around Náměstí Míru and Vinohradská, I picked up on loud abuse and tacky comments against all foreigners in general, about how silly they looked in their hats and how they flashed their money around and didn't know their pivo from their víno. And how they crowded the stores and the metros and how they were loud and annoying and flashing cameras all the time.

It irked me slightly then, to know that even some of the Czech people I worked with as well as some of my students showed this surprising scorn for most foreigners in general. I asked one of my legal students what she thought was the cause of this mild form of disdain. Did they not like the fact that other people showed an interest in Czech culture and architecture? Did they not find it agreeable that their country was minting valuable foreign exchange because of the spending capacity of these people? Did they not like the sound of their languages? What was the actual reason that the fun finger-pointing started to resemble serious rudeness and insulting behaviour?

She told me in plain words that they didn't appreciate foreigners coming into the country and making comparisons about everything they saw and bought here with things in their own countries and realizing that the quality and variety fell short. She said American and British people in particular were prone to comparing things all the time, from sweaters to professional services. That is why Czech people didn't really relish the idea of being bombarded by whiners from around the world for four months straight.

I asked another student. He more or less said the same. Then I put them both in the same room and asked them what or how they felt about me. I was their teacher, they pointed out, quite uselessly. I was also a foreigner, I pointed out, more to the point. They sat there. They laughed uncomfortably and said I was not a tourist. I told them I complained about things too. They said I was impatient by nature, that's all. I told them I had written a scathing article about the fiasco at CSOB on the web. They said, well, that's an exception. I told them I thought they were a generally rude and standoffish culture and although I understand why, I don't condone it at all. They began to bristle. I welcomed it. I told them it had taken me more than three months to even get them to ask me how I was feeling after a weekend of being sick in bed. They told me they wanted to respect my privacy. I told them I thought they didn't care either way. Finally my female student had enough. She threw her book down on the table and said she didn't care what any foreigner thought. As far as she was concerned, we were all a bunch of annoying pompous asses and she stormed out. I looked over at him. He squirmed and made some silly excuse about her bad behaviour. I asked him if he agreed with her. And he said he hadn't really had any bad experience with any foreigner and so he didn't have an opinion either way.

I came away from the class feeling strange. Since then, I have had an apology from her and him but that isn't what leaves me feeling strange. Strangeness comes from knowing that one truly is a stranger here.

I may as well amble along and take pictures. It's spring and I am a visitor.