Berlin January 1990: Grey monoliths fill my mind. Soviet bloc apartment buildings shuddering under the strain of a leaden winter sky. Pale colorless people shuffling onto trains and subways, pushing through crowds, moving in uncharted circles in their new world.
The euphoria of November 9, 1989 has faded away. The instantaneous and miraculous transformation from bleak palette to vibrant hues has not taken place. The reality of a long slow slog towards unification is seeping in, like an overused tea bag; at times bitter and weak.
I descend on the city in my youthful naivete. The words “Checkpoint Charlie” and “shoot to kill” echo vaguely in my mind, but I have yet to make the connection between phrases my mother dramatically uttered and the grey conglomeration of buildings I am now seeing. Slowly, slowly, my sheltered Western eyes open and I see another world laboring to cast off the concrete shackles of this former Eastern Bloc.
We ride a tram from Potsdam back to comforting West Berlin, where neon lights and the frenetic pace to grab life and devour it whole are what we know, what we consider normal.
Hunger stirs us. I reach into my purse and pull out three precious oranges, oranges I had to buy at the market in Braunschweig, because they were Oranges From Morocco. As I pierce the skin with my nail, the sweet and tangy aroma of oranges makes an almost visible trail through the train. Babushka-clad old women, men wearing sensible hats stir as the bright orange trail rushes by them. But they don’t look up, they don’t look at us, the spoiled Westerners defying the silent and morose atmosphere.
Is it habit? Is it ingrained in them to not stare, to pretend they see nothing?
We share the oranges among ourselves, and then it hits me.
Oranges From Morocco here are like unicorns.
I feel guilty and ashamed for having this wealth of fruit in my bag, sorry that I don’t have an orange for every person on that train, relieved when we step off the train and step back into the throbbing metropolis of West Berlin.
Berlin January 2004: I step off the train at Zoo Station. I choose Zoo Station because of U2. I look around me, and I don’t know where I am. I look to the east, to where colorless cement once met the sky on a cold day fourteen years earlier. I don’t recognize anything.
I see a homogeneous city of riotous color and lights. The Pied Piper of Consumerism has played his seductive tune, to great success. The Wall that once tore the heart of this city into two pieces is now commemorated by a thin brass line.
No more babushkas. No more somber train cars. No more rows of sightless windows peering from cement rectangles over the scuttling city below.
I stop for a moment. I wonder if Oranges from Morocco are still unicorns here, or are they commonplace, like tabby cats in alleys. Does anyone stop at the sight of them anymore?
Like a comet tail, that narrow swath of orange perfume has widen, enveloped the city, crossed and blurred the borders between East and West. The unusual has become part of the scenery, shaded in to blend with the everyday.
In my mind, I see the jubilant orange colors, made all the more vibrant for the grey that once contrasted it. And I am glad I was there for it.
Thank you, Berlin.