Little Details (9/10/09)

One tomato, two tomato

Sept. 10, 2009

By Katherine Bielawa Stamper

We had a 7:35 a.m. train to Krakow, Poland. My daughter and I walked into the Opole train station at 7 a.m. Spying a bench, we slapped our heavy backpacks onto the mosaic floor and sat down. An obscure figure of a man inhabited the other end of the bench.

My eyes scanned upward, taking in the high-ceilinged, graceful edifice. Was the architecture distinctly German, Prussian or Hapsburgian, I wondered? Borders shifted so often in Europe. Opole was Oppeln, a German city, at the end of World War II when Poland’s frontiers shifted westward, trading rich agrarian soils for this German industrial land, eviscerated by Allied bombs.

I was hungry. We’d taken an early cab from my uncle’s home in Prudnik. He’d have given us a lift — if he owned a car. A 6 a.m. taxi, although pricey, sounded far better than rousting my 13-year-old from bed to catch a 5 a.m. bus. We packed the night before, rose early to shower, skipped breakfast and were escorted to the stop by my cousin Ala.

We hired Ignacy, negotiating a better price. The hour-long ride in morning rain flew by as we chatted. We passed small towns with tall church steeples and roadways lined with enormous trees. Ignacy recounted travels to West Germany during Poland’s communist days. He lived out of his car for three months and bathed in a river while earning money for basic necessities for his family back home. He spoke proudly of his two daughters, both of whom graduated from the University of Wroclaw, formerly known as Breslau. One is a museum curator, the other is a marketing professional in London.

Ala’s mother bought us fresh rolls and a variety of cheeses for our journey. She graciously accommodates her vegetarian relatives from America, even if she doesn’t quite understand our dietary choices. We packed just-picked apples and fresh tomatoes from my uncle’s garden. At 77, he bicycles across town daily to tend his apple and plum trees, earthy potatoes and assortment of beans. He was especially proud of his tomatoes. They’d ripened to a vibrant red — early — while his neighbors’ plants languished in greenish limbo.

Sitting down, I offered a half-smile to the man at the other end of the bench. I noticed he was older, but was too tired to register little else. Visiting family in Poland is a wonderful, emotional journey in which I try to forge personal connections despite distance and discordant time zones. It can be hard when your family lives on another continent. After three days of speaking almost non-stop Polish, I was ready to lazily blabber away “po Angielsku,” in English.

My daughter extracted a book from her backpack. I read her cue. It was too early to talk of anything substantive. Our internal time clocks hadn’t quite adjusted to the six time zones we’d skirted. We exchanged a few words in English. I sensed a curious glance from our bench mate.

I withdrew a sandwich from my stash along with a red, round, perfectly plump tomato from my uncle’s garden. Lacking a knife, I decided to eat two-handed, alternating bites between sandwich and succulent fruit. One bite into that tantalizingly tart tomato unleashed a pulp projectile. It flew through the air, missing my shirt, splash-landing on the sleeve and pants of our bench mate. He looked down sadly — not angrily — at the reddish juice seeping into his clothes.

I switched into Polish mode, apologizing profusely as I used my napkin in a vain attempt to sop up splattered pulp and teeny-tiny, hard-to-wipe-off seeds. Only then did I notice his clothes were worn and already somewhat soiled. Brown socks poked through holes in his tattered sandals. I then spotted the two large bags, plastic ones with handles I remember from Poland’s communist days, and wondered if he was homeless.

“It’s no problem, miss,” the man said.

He was gracious and kind even though I dirtied his clothes and felt unsure if he could easily launder them. He then pulled out a sandwich and ate it along with his own tomato as if to say, “No harm done.”

I finished my breakfast just before our train was announced. We lifted our heavy packs onto our shoulders and I bid the man goodbye. He smiled. We left him as we’d found him, sitting on the train station bench with two large bags at his sandaled feet.

I learned to be more careful when eating tomatoes in public. More importantly, encountering this man provided a gentle reminder that we all have dignity and we all deserve some semblance of respect. As the school year starts, let us remember to try to teach this lesson to our children. If we don’t model it, they can’t learn it.

Katherine Bielawa Stamper lives in Williston. Reader comments are welcome at or