Silvo Lahtela, medierend am Seeufer, Logo
Foto: Beat Presser

Silvo Lahtela



This is the second chapter of my novel Far from the Masks, which has  been published only in German so far. In order to give English speaking readers the opportunity to get a feel for my writing, I am publishing it here.

For every serious author, a translator who can transport not only pure information, as Google Translate does, but also the “swing” of the story, the aura between the lines, into a different language is a gift from God. I’m very glad to have found such a translator into English.

Matcha-cup, "literature is the matcha of language"
Literature is the matcha of language

The Hannah Video

translated by MITCH COHEN

(second chapter of the novel Far from the Masks)


Her grandmother was adamant that she should take a taxi to the train station, she would make the call and pay the fee; but Hannah Sand went stubborn: “That’s so nice of you, but there’s an electric scooter nearby that I can borrow. I like to be independent if I can!” She showed her grandmother her smartphone. On its map of the surroundings, the site of an e-scooter blinked red. The 80-year-old woman cast an alert gaze at the display. “That’s the parking lot at the Drachenberg. Okay, but I’ll go with you. It’s much too dark now, much too dangerous for a young woman like you!”
   Hannah rolled her eyes and smiled. “Aw, come on! You live in Westend, not Wedding or Neukölln. But okay, fine, let’s walk a ways together.”
   Her grandmother grasped Hannah’s elbow with a grip astonishingly firm for her age. – “Berlin has changed a lot… ever since everyone can come here. The borders have been thrown wide open, but oddly enough, suddenly there are police with machine guns at every Christmas Market.
   “This city and this country have gone bonkers! Last week three young men groped a jogger in Lietzensee Park and then nearly beat her to death because she didn’t want to let them rape her. I no longer take the U-Bahn at night!”
   “Grandma! No politics! Let’s go or I’ll miss my train!” Hannah smiled at her grandmother and slung her black, carbon-fiber violin case over her back. They left the grand villa in which her widowed grandmother, a retired executive secretary of a major enterprise, occupied a whole floor. After a short stroll through the well-to-do residential area of Berlin’s Westend district and then not quite a kilometer down a poorly illuminated traffic artery into Grunewald forest, they arrived at the parking lot at the Drachenberg. In the half-darkness of weak light from a distant streetlamp, Hannah spotted the e-scooter and unlocked it with her app. She took the helmet and key out of the helmet box.
   Her grandmother watched her, shaking her head. “My goodness, what times are these! Simply taking such a thing from the street!” Hannah smiled. “Yeah, I had to get used to it, too. I guess I’m old school. I even still play an instrument myself, instead of modeling sound on my computer.” “Ride carefully! An accident can happen easily. If you injure your hands, that’s it for your career as a great violinist. You’re so unreasonable!”
   Hannah gave her grandmother a kiss. “Not really. My hands are insured to the max! Like the legs of a racehorse! Besides, anxiety-ridden musicians are mega-embarrassing! Who wants to hear people like that play?! You wouldn’t, either!” She laughed blithely, mounted the Vespa-like scooter, and waved as she rode out of the parking lot.
Hannah’s self-confidence was play-acted. In reality, she was in the midst of a worsening existential crisis. Due to the Corona lockdown, all her international live performances had been cancelled, and for the first time since she had burst onto the classical music scene as a youthful super-talent almost twenty years ago with Bach violin partitas, her appointment book for the coming months was almost empty. She did have a contract to deliver another album this year for her music label – violin sonatas by Mozart with a friend who is a pianist; this is why she has come to Berlin now for initial studio sessions. But the release of the CD was postponed indefinitely because of the unclear marketing situation.
   She was more or less free to do what she wanted, including financially: in her mid-thirties, her album sales and worldwide performances ended all economic worries. But just as surfacing too fast from deep water can give a diver life-threatening lung embolisms, the sudden disappearance of public pressure led to a kind of psychological decompression and a depression that worsened daily: she asked herself what all this music that she had been delivering for decades, as if at the push of a button, still had to do with her real personality? She didn’t know anymore.
   Her live violin concerts could produce storms of jubilation, but also, and equally, reverent stillness. That was a lovely thing, but if she were honest with herself, it had turned into total routine in the meantime. Her trademark as a classical musician – groove and lightness, soul and brilliance – had become so axiomatic that all she really had to do was pick up her violin and stride onto the podium, and the people were already enthusiastic, expecting greatness. What and how she then played still mattered, because her audience was not usually deaf, but what the people heard was more or less Hannah’s image; they heard what they expected to hear.
   Almost all the so-called experts and fans failed to notice what was really going on, for example that some evenings she only simulated momentary presence and real musicality and actually only ran through technical finger exercises. She undauntedly experienced the special in what was banal and the authentic in the artificial. They saw or, more precisely, heard the self-produced imaginings in their heads, but not the reality.
   Hannah herself did not fail to notice, at least subliminally, this constant shift in true values. And now, when deadline pressure was so suddenly cut off, this gnawing discontent about the meaning of it all, till now festering in her unconscious, pushed into consciousness. Of course, she couldn’t change the world – “the show must go on” was a principle that her personal doubts could not invalidate. In the music circus, after all, she could be replaced at any time. There would always be highly gifted or even brilliant violinists – it was like with Miss Universe, who reappears, different, each year. But what she could do was: maybe change herself. And that’s what she planned to do, though she had no idea what that would mean.
   But first she had a problem to solve with the handlebars of her scooter. From the start, its response was extremely squishy, and now, when she took the roundabout at Theodor Heuss Platz, she had almost collided with an angrily honking semi truck; when turning, she hadn’t kept cleanly to her lane but had drifted, although she steered against this. With shaky knees and a queasy feeling in her belly from the slight shock, she immediately parked the obviously defective scooter. To end up under the double, hip-high wheels of a truck on a roundabout would surely not have been a good death.
   On the opposite corner of the street, she saw a taxi stand. She ran across the red pedestrian traffic light and knocked on a taxi’s side window. The fifty-year-old driver, Michael Quellenburg sat, sunk deep in his seat, with his eyes closed. He woke, startled, from his doze and let the window down. She said, “I have to reach the main train station fast!” He gestured her to get in, and Hannah took a seat directly behind him. As a relatively prominent woman, she chose this seat whenever she took a taxi so that her face could not be seen in the rearview mirror. She wasn’t really afraid of being recognized, but her default preference was anonymity. But apart from that, taxi drivers were not normally up to date with the renowned faces in the classical music scene.
   Michael had made a racing start from the taxi stand and said, “If you’re sitting in the blind spot so that you don’t have to wear a mask – you needn’t wear one for my sake.” Hannah replied, “What?! The mask? I totally forgot. I don’t like them. I always sit in this seat because otherwise some taxi drivers talk your ear off.” The driver said, “Don’t worry! I’m not one of them.” He switched on the taxi’s sound system and a reggae rhythm sounded at moderate volume; he turned the volume down.
   Confronted with the ubiquitous music in public squares, department stores, cafés, or, like here, taxis, Hannah had developed the ability to tune annoying sound out of her consciousness; but now she listened, pleasantly surprised. Like most musically awake people, she knew the song “One Love”. Before she had been born, Hannah’s father, as a young student, had heard Bob Marley in Berlin’s Waldbühne stage and had immediately bought the “Exodus” record. That was the pre-CD era and now, oddly enough, was already the time after CDs. Technological epochs seemed to flit past at a tremendous speed nowadays. – As a girl, when she had had enough of classical music and the daily violin drill, she had sometimes listened to Marley at home. Maybe the suggestive beat of the reggae had unconsciously shaped her a bit, so that she never forgot that groove, swing, or however you wanted to describe a rhythm that was alive, was part of every real music.
   But even if Hannah’s hair was full and long enough to mat them into dreadlocks, she was no Rastafarian who took Haile Selassie or anyone else to be the returning messiah. She liked the rhythm of reggae, but her real roots were not in Jamaica or Africa; Hannah’s musical heart belonged to Johann Sebastian Bach, if to anyone. And maybe that’s why she felt a magic in Bob Marley’s voice; he seemed to her spiritually akin to Bach when he and his background girls sang, “Hear the children crying, one love/Hear the children crying, one heart.” Marley’s songs seemed like modern cantatas, full of empathy and religiosity. For Hannah, it was also a strangely moving coincidence that the Waldbühne, where her father had attended the concert, was just a hop, skip, and jmp away from the place where she had driven off with the defective e-scooter.
   The song ended. She saw an old man out on the street – he looked like a retiree – holding a flashlight and rummaging in one of the orange public trashcans. A sad, but meanwhile typical image of Berlin. Then her facial expression froze, completely taken aback for a second, and she instinctively held her breath: what she now heard in the taxi was herself as a teenager, a piece from the album that had made her name: Bach’s first Minuet from Partita Number 3 for Violin Solo. No radio station she was familiar with played reggae and classical right after each other, uncommented; this must be the taxi driver’s playlist. And it was a relatively short and not terribly well-known piece, under two minutes; that seemed unusual, because most people put songs at least 3 minutes long on their personal music mixes. Maybe that had to do with human feeling for time: two minutes was generally felt to be too short of breath for beautiful music. On the original album, Minuet 1 was immediately followed by Minuet 2.
   She considered outing herself as the violinist. And wondered whether the driver had recognized her. After all, when she’d gotten into the cab she had held her violin case in her hand. And someone who knew his way around classical music might recognize her snub nose. On the other hand, her public image on album covers was always extremely styled: the wild elf type. Without makeup and wearing jeans, she was not conspicuous in a crowd. Pretty, sure, but no model-like eye-catcher. She chose to maintain her anonymity. She didn’t feel like small talk, even if the driver’s taste in music meant he was probably a likeable man.
   They were now driving through the Tiergarten, into the roundabout around the Victory Column, and the music had changed again. Now it was a trendy, brand-new ballad, “Underdog”, in which Alicia Keys sang about simple people: mothers, taxi drivers, street vendors, all of whom lived the moment and their dreams in their own ways. Hannah liked the song, which she knew from the radio. “Keep on keeping at what you love/You’ll find that someday soon enough/You will rise up, rise up…”
   It was a remarkable music mix and when she was glad that the taxi had to stop at a red light, she realized that she would have liked to have the drive go on longer. But she was already in view of the main train station. At any rate, she would certainly tip especially generously. They were passing Moabit remand prison, which projected an inkling of the world’s always omnipresent evil and brutality into a harmless residential district, when Hannah’s surprise increased again. After “Underdog” came Bach again, once more her own violin playing, this time Minuet Number 2 of the Third Partita. She could no longer leave that uncommented and said, “Violin solos as buffers between pop songs? Funny idea!” She slid from the left to the right side of the backseat, so that she could look at the driver at least in profile. Their eyes met in the rearview mirror.
   Michael was thinking about finally wrapping up his taxi enterprise: giving notice to all his employees, writing attests for reduced-hours compensation, declaring insolvency, things like that. The Corona lockdown had ruined his business within a few weeks: hardly anyone took a taxi anymore, and 50 Euros turnover per shift was not enough for anyone to survive, much less feed a family. After thirty years behind the wheel it was all over, practically overnight; it was a feeling like chopping off a hand. But better a horrible end than horror without end, as the saying has it.
   He returned Hannah’s gaze in the mirror with a resigned smile. “With a violin on your lap, you could hardly fail to notice it. – I experiment wildly with my playlists. First, to keep my customers happy, and second, to keep me happy. It’s not easy. But oddly enough, Bach always works. Tough guys, drunks, jerks – his music somehow makes even the most belligerent passengers amenable.”
Hannah laughed. “Obviously including me. I normally keep my mouth shut in a taxi.”
   The man smiled briefly and turned his eyes from the rearview mirror back to the road ahead and continued driving, silently; he was apparently not a talkative person.
   She thought of the dull train trip awaiting her on the Intercity Express to Munich, where one shoots, hermetically sealed, through the landscape, like in an airplane; a sterile trip tailored to tempo, and made even more sterile by the requirement to wear a mask. A trip on which most of the other passengers, whether in first or second class, bent autistically over their mobile phones and laptops, sunk in their personal worlds like babies sucking on their pacifiers. And of course, she, too, was part of this zombie world.
   They reached the forecourt of the train station. Michael stopped the meter: a little over twenty Euros. “Receipt?” Hannah shook her head. Now, after Bach, from the loudspeakers sounded a somewhat dated hit by Zaz: “Je veux.” She handed Michael a green 100€ bill. “Keep the change!” Michael responded, “That’s more than generous!”
Hannah overcame an inner resistance; anonymity is fine, but she had the feeling it would give the driver more real joy if she revealed the truth. “Actually, the ride was priceless. I’m the violinist on your playlist. Hearing yourself by chance in a taxi – it’s like a divine gift… Do you have a business card? My agency will send you tickets for my next concert in Berlin, or wherever you want!”
   After a puzzled moment, Michael responded, “Didn’t recognize you. Even though I’ve seen your face on CDs before. Too many faces on the backseat. Hundreds of thousands over the years. It all starts to blur. And I thought I’d already experienced everything in my taxi…” He rummaged in the central console for a visiting card. Hannah took it and, smiling, extended her hand between the seats in farewell. “Take care of yourself!” she said. The driver shook her hand, “You, too. And thanks!”
   Hannah was a bit pressed for time. She rushed into the train station, a multistoried glass-and-steel hulk, built to resemble an architectonic Swiss cheese; from the top level one could look down through the other levels of the station to the bottom without having one’s view completely blocked; it was a little dizzying, if one had vertigo. The atmosphere was a mixture of the provincial charm of a typical shopping mall with its shops and chain snack bars and the international flair of long-distance transportation. In the foyer on the way to the escalator to the lowest level, she bumped into a muscular man in his mid-40s whose stride was as energetic as hers, but who stared at his iPhone with his earphones on and paid no attention at all to his surroundings. The two of them excused themselves mechanically. When, a little out of breath, she reached the platform for Munich trains, an announcement on the loudspeakers told travelers that the train would have an estimated twenty minutes delay.  Not many people were waiting for the ICE, maybe twenty, scattered along the platform; the general lockdown had turned an entire nation into stay-at-homes. She sat down on a bench beside a stainless steel garbage can. To keep homeless people from sleeping here, the seats on the bench were separated by armrests. Like the densely bundled metal rods up on the display boards at city train stations, which aimed at keeping pigeons from roosting there.
   It was a world calibrated everywhere for defense and fear; now even the few passengers on the huge platform wore masks. Hannah noticed her good mood from the taxi evaporating and an inner irritability taking its place. A familiar feeling. A latent disgust with the world. What had just been wonderful in the taxi was that her true calling – to make music – was reflected in the taxi driver’s playlist as one that made other people happy. An everyday moment that suddenly made her life seem meaningful and beautiful. Without a plan, or practicing, or drugs. And precisely such moments were obviously too rare in her life. Otherwise she wouldn’t be inwardly tense and annoyed not even ten minutes later.
   But something was nonetheless different from usual. Her experience in the taxi seemed to bear delayed consequences for her consciousness. The realization was brewing in her that any moment, and not just that one in the taxi, but also this one on the bench on the lower level of Berlin’s main train station, offered a chance at genuine life – if one only used it. She knew that there was indeed something that would make her happy, immediately, right here and now. If she only dared to do it.
   And it was even something she could do really well. She suddenly had a tremendous impulse to take out her violin and play Bach; specifically, the “Chaconne”, that world-famous, difficult showpiece that she had recorded on her first album. The only problem was that publicly playing music here in the train station without a permit was surely illegal – and because of Corona presumably sanctioned even more strictly than usually. But above all, the mentality of subjecting other people to music, unasked, was completely alien to her. And the violin was not an instrument on which one can strum unobtrusively quietly, like on a guitar. She had played in all the world’s great concert halls, but always on invitation; she had never imposed herself, neither publicly nor privately. She was as far removed from a street busker as a graduate from an elite conservatory could ever be. She realized that she had never actually played spontaneously before people who were not interested in her or even in music.
   She had auditioned since her childhood for jurors’ strict ears, who immediately register every mistake and every clichéd intonation. That had never intimidated her, because she was confident in her giftedness; now she suddenly was afraid to take her violin in her hands. Because here in the station, it was not a matter of her musical gifts, which didn’t interest anyone here; it was a matter of herself as a woman who wanted to do what she felt like at the moment: to play music. The two were in no way the same thing. She was immediately at home in concert halls, be they in Tokyo, or Amsterdam, or New York – but with her violin in a train station, she felt like a stranger.
 This schizophrenia of being at home in music, but not in the world accompanying it, unsettled her; she wanted to change that. That’s precisely what the message of the little taxi ride seemed to be; it was destiny. And she could do so only if she dared to mix the two worlds and take her instrument out of its case.
   It was a situation like the first dive from at least a three-meter board  into a swimming pool. Either you dove, or you were too afraid and didn’t. There were no excuses; either she was a fraidy cat or she had courage. There was nothing in between. If now, when the lockdown had swept her appointment book bare, she didn’t even use her little bit of freedom and her spontaneous inspirations, she would probably never do so. Sure, there was a man in her life, one who was going to pick her up from Munich’s main train station and with whom she lived and might soon have children, but at the moment all that somehow didn’t seem to matter.
   She breathed in and out deeply, then opened her violin case and took out her beloved instrument. A Guarneri del Gesu replica from the 19th century in warm, orange-brown wood hues, more than 100 years older than herself and worth a quarter of a million Euros; but when she was in love with the sound of an instrument, she took it with her wherever she went. Random muggers could be expected to focus on other things and to lack eyes trained for historical musical instruments. Besides, as Hannah saw it, a wonderful violin existed to be played, not to be exhibited in a vitrine. The price of life was ultimately decay, and no protection, no insurance, and no mask could ban that fact from life; in this respect, she was intuitively a Buddhist.
   She rose from the bench and took a crumpled disposable fleece mask from the back pocket of her jeans and slipped it over her face. If she was mustering all her courage to play here on the platform, she didn’t want to let herself in for even more trouble by not wearing a mask. But even if she were deeply convinced of the medical senselessness of everyday masks as protection against virus and saw in them more a hysteric placebo suppressing the awareness that death was certain sooner or later – fighting on two fronts at the same time would have been too much. She was only a woman on her own at a train station.
   And after all, the mask reduced the likelihood that someone would recognize her as a famous violinist. Because it was clear to Hannah that, in that case, the people would naturally all immediately listen respectfully, take photos and videos with their smartphones, feed the social networks with them, and find it impossible to get over the fact that a star of classical music was playing, unannounced, at the main train station. And that wasn’t what she wanted, at all. She already had plenty of the more or less always identical reaction from fans, admirers, and connoisseurs. She wanted to play as a more or less nameless person, to be perceived apart from her image, and to see what happened then.
   She laid the violin against her throat and looked briefly around from the corners of her eyes; none of the few people close to where she stood paid any attention. Neither the two overweight, older women who were shoveling into their mouths some kind of fried noodles out of the cardboard box from an Asian snack bar, nor the suit in his mid-30s who was typing into his laptop. Of course, not the young couple with masks slipped down around their chins on the seats opposite Hannah’s bench, who, closely embraced, had been making out intensely for quite some time. Hannah briefly shut her eyes to collect herself, then began playing, resolute and uninhibited.
   The first bars of the Chaconne were suggestive and festive; anyone with even just a little musical sensitivity would automatically prick up their ears. Unlike all the extremely well-known snatches of melody, like the beginning of Mozart’s “Little Night Music”, which had lost its charm by being massively and mechanically repeated, Bach’s music seemed strangely immune to trivialization. Even if one heard or played him a thousand times, it was always as if ocean waves were rushing toward shore. A process that never bored, precisely because of a natural regularity through all repetition.
   Be that as it may, as so often when she first began playing, Hannah blocked out everything of her surroundings except her violin. In this state, she could just as well be playing in the Royal Festival Hall in London. And so she didn’t notice that the first tone, a penetrating chord, had startled the amorous couple out of their embrace. Nor did she notice that the man at his laptop briefly looked up, peeved, before fingering his keyboard again, unmoved. And that, after briefly glancing at her, the two older women shook their heads and continued poking little plastic forks into their cardboard boxes and fishing greasy noodles and thoroughly overcooked chicken meat out.
   People further away from the platform didn’t really respond to the music, either. They briefly noted it, but in pre-Corona Berlin, where street musicians in the subways and city trains often competed with beggars for attention and small change, most didn’t reward their appearance with so much as a glance. Interrupted by the sound of arriving trains on other tracks, loudspeaker announcements, and the rattling of wheeled suitcases, Bach’s uplifting music and Hannah’s intense playing were drowned out by the general, everyday hustle and bustle. Hannah, rapt in her playing, initially noticed nothing of this general lack of interest.
   But she appeared on a monitor of the central surveillance system, and two security service employees were sent out to enforce the station’s regulations and stop her playing. They were a man and a woman: he had the stature of an ageing bouncer, with strong muscles under his belly; she was much shorter, but similarly compact. When they reached Hannah, they looked her up and down disparagingly; she was still playing in the tunnel. After a few seconds of observation, the man loudly ridiculed, “Sounds like my cat when someone steps on her tail!” He looked to his partner, hoping for approval for his remark. She nodded in agreement. Hannah continued playing her passage, but her perception opened up to the outside world again. She realized by their uniforms that she was dealing with the railway’s security service. She no longer played as raptly – now more like on autopilot.
   The burly woman barked, “Okay, that’s it! Or you’ll be charged!” Hannah looked up from her violin and into the masked face of the woman, who had the same water-blue eyes as her grandmother. But there was no friendly gleam in them; the woman had sickly, reddened skin and not the least sign of sympathy. Hannah also registered that none of the other waiting passengers were even listening to her. The couple behind her was still absorbed in their intense embrace, which in some way seemed to be the only compliment for her little performance. Her music was at least compatible with kissing. Hannah’s bow hand went rigid. She had been accustomed for years, practically since early childhood, to applause, whether sparse or stormy or even hurricane-like. But this here, utter coldness and absolute lack of interest, was new to her.
   What was so strangely shocking was not that she was dealing with obvious philistines. The world was complicated enough; no one could be familiar with everything. And that the current, so-called digital era was not a musical one, and that calculation was replacing intuition and spontaneity everywhere – embodied for example in the boom in online dating services – was already quite clear to people with alert minds. But what Hannah realized at Berlin’s main train station, and there could be no doubt about it, was a new quality of contagious autism: people no longer came into emotional contact with each other; it was as if she didn’t exist. Because she didn’t wear the “star” label here, as she otherwise did. The security officer before her regarded her as nothing more than a disturbance of railway operations that had to be removed. Like graffiti or trash. And the people around her on the platform were all crammed so completely into their own worlds that her playing could have fetched the stars from the sky, which it had, and that they remained completely uninterested. She didn’t fit the people’s image of the current moment, so she was blocked out. Or regarded as an unpleasant disturbance of the normal program. She was a kind of bug that the system administrator and enforcers had to expunge.
   Hannah recalled a friend, a desperate young mother who had told her that her baby, later diagnosed as autistic, did not seek eye contact with her. This was precisely the experience Hannah had with her music: finding herself in a space lacking all psychological contact. If the taxi driver had fallen from Heaven, now, just a quarter of an hour later, she had landed in Hell. Musically and humanly.
   At least she had proven her courage to herself by playing at all. She was definitely proud of that. But she was also a practically thinking woman. She had absolutely no intention of creating a big scene, beyond her playing so far. The people didn’t want to hear her play, so that’s how it is, she thought. She said to the man, as well as to the woman, into whose eyes she briefly gazed, “Alright.”
   She put her violin away and sat back down on the bench. The loudspeakers announced the arrival of the Munich train. The man from the security service said, “This time will let you go with a warning! And next time, before you perform in public, get some lessons! I haven’t heard anything as horrible in a long time!” He grinned to his partner, and the two of them tromped self-importantly to the up escalator.
   Hannah felt sincerely sorry for the man. His last remark, which had been intended as scornful and hurtful, of course, had merely outed him as being musically as dead as a doornail. In a way, it was fascinating to see how a little power could lure people into pitiful behavior. Hannah looked around her: no one took the slightest interest in her situation; it was as if she had never taken up her violin in the train station and begun to play the Chaconne. The security service had probably made video recordings. Maybe she should notify her agency about it. “The Hannah Video” – there could hardly be better advertising for her musical authenticity. Or worse for the so-called musicality of a metropolis. The clip might even go viral.
   But later, when she sat, tired, emotionally exhausted, and gradually drifting into sleep in the night train to Munich, she realized that the result of the evening was not a cool new marketing idea, but the exact opposite of business as usual: from now on, she would take the violin in hand intuitively much more often: at airports, at highway rest stops, in nightclubs, wherever she felt like it. She would learn to live with the reactions. And above all, she was grateful to the taxi driver: if she hadn’t heard his strange playlist ranging from pop to classical, she surely wouldn’t have spontaneously played her violin in the main train station; now she was psychologically ready to mix the musical and the unmusical worlds. She felt freer and more genuine than ever before.

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