THIS week I’m going to tell you a tale about when I was a foreigner. Please bear with me on this, as the relevance to East Lothian will become apparent towards the end of my story.

Many years ago, when I was a much younger man, I travelled to the Czech Republic. I was not fleeing violence and war, of course, but I was fleeing from emotional turmoil and heartache. I was disorientated by a sense of having no place to call home, although this was mainly due to an emotional breakdown. It was kind of by accident I found myself living in a country I knew nothing about.

It had been only a few years since the country had been part of communist Eastern Europe, but although the system had collapsed, society was still very much affected by it. This was not all bad, but there was a sense of a society emerging slowly from a state of frozen oppression.

And I remember feeling so foreign because everything was so different. The first thing was the language. Slavic languages are so unlike English, there are no recognisable sounds or words, except robot, which is a Czech word, but with limited use. I had to learn the essentials quickly, like the words for toilet, ticket, beer, hello, goodbye, thank you and excuse me.

But the truth was it was me who was foreign. The way I looked and how I behaved labelled me immediately. I had no idea about their customs and traditions and I often made simple mistakes. Once I ordered goulash but wanted chips instead of the Czech dumplings that would normally go with it. The waiter looked at me in horror and told me this was simply not possible. My Czech at that time was too limited to discuss the matter so I accepted that I had committed a faux pas and didn’t pursue the matter.

The waiter came back with a plate of goulash with chips and he gave me a wry smile of understanding. Then he returned a few moments later with a small basket of dumplings as a side. It was a compromise, and although neither of us spoke each other’s language I knew how to say thank you, and his smile indicated he understood.

It was a very significant moment, a recognition of cultural difference dealt with in a respectful way. He had given me what I wanted even though it was culinary sacrilege, and yet he had also given me the dumplings as well, just in case I might like to try what was traditional for him. It was for me an important moment of acceptance.

Eventually it was my language which was my saving grace. Everyone there spoke Czech plus Russian, but few people spoke English. This was a consequence of the communist era, of course, but there was a thirst amongst the younger generation to learn English, as this was seen as a passport to both travel and career development. So there was a great demand for teachers of English, and if you were a native speaker that was a qualification in itself. So I was able to quickly find a job teaching. Once I had a job I began to feel the beginnings of belonging because it gave me social contact.

The first year was the hardest. I actually hated everything about the Czech Republic at first. I was almost killed by trams on a daily basis, the cold of the winter was like nothing I had ever experienced, nothing seemed to work as I wanted it. Despite working hard I earned a pittance, just enough to keep me in essentials and have a roof over my head. But in this I was no different to the vast majority of Czechs at that time. I craved fish and chips and brown sauce, missed my old friends and family, but I felt then that I had no home to go back to so felt trapped in this new place.

I remember thinking one day in the beginning as I walked along a pavement that if I fell down dead at that moment then nobody would really care, because nobody really knew me, and I knew no one. I had never felt like this before. I was such a complete foreigner, and the description alien now made sense, because that’s how I felt.

And because I was from the West, people often made assumptions about me. They usually assumed I had lots of money, because that was their image of Westerners in the media. Then I discovered some graffiti by the door where I was staying. I was being called names I didn’t understand. I remember the feeling of vulnerability that created within me. It must have been someone who lived in the flats in the same stairway, but nobody had said anything directly to me. I just got the feeling that people were suspicious of me, that even though they didn’t know me, they thought they did.

But things gradually changed, and what made that change possible were the relationships I managed to develop with people. At first I became friends with fellow Westerners, all of whom spoke English. Most were American or English, and then I met a fellow Scot and a wonderful crazy Dutchman who could drink us all under the table.

They all spoke Czech so this was my passport to Czech friends. As I learnt pigeon Czech, I could communicate easier. My negative feelings faded as people approached me with kindness and understanding. I became more sociable because I felt more confident. I didn’t spend all my time with just fellow Westerners, but began to feel more comfortable with Czech friends.

It was a slow process as I still suffered from debilitating homesickness at times, but what made me feel at home in the Czech Republic in that first year were the relationships I developed, and the kindness and understanding of those around me. Yes, some unpleasant or ignorant people had labelled me and had seen me as a threat. But such people exist everywhere. The antidote to them was the kindness and common humanity of the vast majority I met.

I grew to love the Czech Republic, and I still do. I have many friends there still. I love visiting them and feeling at home there.

And yet, during all those times, I had the possibility to return to my homeland. It was my emotional state that kept me in exile, and paradoxically when I felt at home in the Czech Republic, I felt able to return to Scotland and rebuild my life.

I was lucky I could do this. There was no war, no atrocity, no oppression and cruelty, no risk. I had been in exile a little under three years but returned as a better and recovered man because of the wonderful kindness and friendships shown to me in a foreign land. I was their friend.

And here is where East Lothian comes into the story. We have refugees arriving over the next few weeks from a war-torn Syria. What these families have experienced we can only imagine – not just in Syria but the hell of the refugee camps as well.

And as they arrive in a dreich, cold and grey November, the weather will be just the first thing that will take them out of their comfort zone. And when they finally arrive in local communities, as seven families will in East Lothian, they will be safe, yet still feel strange and foreign.

I feel my experience of being a foreigner has helped me understand what some of these families may be feeling. But there is a big difference as they have no choice, unlike I had. Their homeland is unsafe, they cannot return. And anyone who has felt like a foreigner will understand that what these families need is time and understanding, as well as a warm welcome. There will be people who will label them, regard their difference as a threat, just as I experienced.

But I know the vast majority of us will be more like that waiter who gave me chips with my goulash. I don’t know where in East Lothian the Syrian refugee families will be settled, but if you meet them, then you will have the opportunity to help change somebody’s world, just as that waiter did for me. Sharing our common humanity is the best way to fight the hatred, violence and intolerance that the refugees have fled from.

And you never know when it might be you who is the foreigner or refugee.