November 2018: Shakespeare
January 2019: The Secret Chamber of My Heart
March 2019: Welcome to the Fifth Season
I am a bilingual writer and professional freelance translator living in Germany close to Cologne. English is the language of my heart while German is my mother tongue. I have published books in both languages: The Way of Life series in English and the Jabando children’s series in German. I love to support Indie authors with beta reading and translations in English and German. A growing fan base is enjoying my reviews and character interviews at my blog “A Chat with Annette” (in English).
What’s in a name? A German’s love for Shakespeare
How did it happen? Where most students ran from the classroom, screaming, I eagerly anticipated the next lesson. Where everyone sat groaning and tearing their hair, I learned verses by heart just for the fun of it.
The subject: Shakespeare
30 years ago we discussed Shakespeare in class. I was an English major and immediately fell in love with his writings. Not all of them – I distinctly remember the boredom while sitting through King Lear’s endless monologues in the theatre. But the comedies and most of all the sonnets took my fancy. While travelling England in my late teens, I visited Stratford-upon-Avon and Shakespeare’s birthplace and went to see “Much ado about nothing” performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company. I had a ball. It was so funny, I hung sideways in my seat with hysterics. Isn’t that amazing? Even after roughly 500 years, his humor still catches. His words carried through the centuries and haven’t lost their ability to touch.
For the rest of my life, I won’t be able to look at a rose without the words from “Romeo and Juliet” playing through my mind: “What’s in a name? A rose, by any other name would smell as sweet …”
Class was no place to get enthusiastic about poetry, though. I got into a row with my English teacher over the interpretation of a sonnet. While he said that there was no final interpretation, he at the same time would not let my interpretation stand next to his. I was so frustrated, I raved about it in my diary.
Poetry is very special. There’s a whole lot of meaning condensed into a few words and there are no rules to say what that meaning is. There will be poems you read that mean absolutely nothing to you. There will be poems which are nice to read and evoke some emotion, no matter whether happy or sad, longing or melancholic.
And then there are poems which will unlock a secret door in your soul and take up residence there, becoming a treasure you will carry with you forever.
For me, one such part from Shakespeare’s sonnets is this:
“In faith, I do not love thee with mine eyes,
for they in thee a thousand errors note.
But it is my heart that loves what they despise.”
Struggling with my looks for many years, this verse (or this sonnet, as the entire thing runs along the same lines) held a special meaning for me, because it focussed on the soul, on personality and character rather than good looks. I still believe that loving a person for who they are rather than what they look like will get you a lot further in a relationship. Whether this idea was implemented by these lines or the words merely echoed what I already believed, I cannot say.
In my late teens and early twenties poetry was my way of expressing my deepest feelings. And in the same way it happened with the poems I read, only a few of the poems I wrote found their way deep into my soul and I still know them by heart, rembering them and reciting them to myself over and over again.
Slowly I descended the stairs, going round and round, deeper and deeper. It was getting cold and clammy. I could feel my reluctance growing step by downward step. A nameless fear was creeping up my spine, because I didn’t know what would await me down there. Where was he leading me?
As if feeling my hesitance, he beckoned me.
“Don’t be afraid. Come,” he said and moved on. I followed, despite the darkness that enveloped us. I trusted him.
By the time the stairs ended and the ground levelled out, everything was pitch black around me. I needed my hands to guide me along the tunnel we were in and my feeling of apprehension threatened to overwhelm me. His presence alone kept me from turning around and barging up those stairs.
“Where are we?” I asked timidly, trying not to let my fear show in my voice. I heard a low scratching noise and suddenly a small flame sprang up in his hands. The soft, warm glow revealed a large chamber hewn right into the rock, dark stones glistening with moisture. A table and two chairs sat in the middle. He placed the candle he had lit on the table and invited me to sit. Even with the light, the place felt uncomfortable, cloying and depressive.
“This is the secret chamber of your heart,” he said softly and looked into my eyes. I swallowed hard. My heart was such a desolate place? I closed my eyes, feeling tears pushing against the lids. It was the truth, wasn’t it? My childhood filled with loneliness, my teenage years full of desperation and suicidal thoughts, all the hopeless hours of feeling so totally out of place in this world… Yes, if all of that were stuffed into a room, it would feel like this.
When I opened my eyes again, he had taken the candle and moved to the wall, pressing the burning wick against the cold stone. ‘No!’ I wanted to yell, ‘Don’t kill the light. Don’t put me back into this cold, clammy darkness. This way I can at least see your face!’ But no sound left my mouth. I sat there paralyzed, watching helplessly.
But the flame didn’t die. The flame moved into the wall. It sparkled and glowed and began to spread, slowly at first and then faster and faster, until the whole chamber was glowing in a multicolored light, as if the rock surface had turned into a million rainbows. It grew warm.
He came back to the table and took both my hands, pulling me to my feet. I looked into his gentle, brown eyes and saw the fluctuating light reflected in them. A smile played around his lips and I could feel my heart picking up a beat. The glowing walls began to pulsate in time with my heartbeat, growing brighter and stronger. A surprised laugh escaped my throat and I threw my arms around him, hugging him close, burying my nose in his neck and breathing deep.
Just like that he had driven out desperation and loneliness and replaced them with hope and love. I could feel his answering laugh rumbling in his chest as his arms locked around me, pulling me in.
“Don’t be afraid any longer,” he whispered into my ear. “I live here now.”
At precisely eleven minutes past eleven a.m. on November 11th, a deep rift opens up in German society. Either you love it, or you hate it: The fifth season – Karneval.
The tradition reaches as far back as the middle ages and is a mixture of much older heathen rituals celebrated to drive out the demons of winter and a Catholic celebration right before the beginning of lent. Six days before Ash Wednesday, the official start of lent, all hell breaks loose in German cities – especially in the Rhine area, where Mainz, Cologne and Düsseldorf are so-called bastions of Karneval.
Having worked in Düsseldorf for many years, I know exactly what I’m talking about. Let me tell you a story…
Jack straightened his tie and cleared his throat nervously. His senior director should have accompanied him on this business trip to Düsseldorf, leading the negotiations with the Germans, but he had been called off at the last minute, handing over the reins to Jack. His German counter-part Steffen cast a bemused glance at him.
“Do you like that tie?” he asked cryptically.
“Uh, yes, why? Is there something wrong with it?”
Steffen shook his head. “No, it’s fine. But I suggest you take it off and hide it in your briefcase.”
A surprised “What?” escaped Jack’s mouth.
“It’s Altweiberfastnacht,” he informed a confused Jack.
“Altweiberfastnacht? What does that mean?”
“You will find out in…” Steffen consulted his watch, which showed ten o’clock sharp. “…exactly one hour and eleven minutes.” He then led the way into the conference room.
By the time the racket broke out in the adjoining office, Jack had forgotten all about Steffen’s words. The men present glanced at their watches, shrugging in humorous defeat. Mere seconds later, the door to the conference room burst open and a number of women stormed in, cheering and laughing. They were all wearing costumes, colorful wigs, funny hats or clown’s noses and there was even a full body pink jumpsuit complete with unicorn hood. The women threw paper streamers and confetti across the men and the table, hooted on party blowers and danced around the table to the rhythm of some oom pah music blaring from an invisible source.
Jack stared in disbelief at the scene, especially when he realized the women were armed with scissors.
Before he knew what was happening, the unicorn grabbed hold of his tie and cut off half of it with a triumphant shout of glee. She waved the end above her head, then bent over Jack to smack a big kiss on his lips and danced out of the room again among the cheers of her friends.
Jack gaped at his business partners, who had been seriously discussing a big deal mere minutes ago. One of them held a pretty young clown girl on his lap, seemingly trying to get her to cut off another bit of his tie to get one more kiss, while his colleagues were laughing and cheering him on.
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” Steffen said with a wink. “Welcome to the fifth season in Germany: Karneval.”
During their lunch break, Steffen took Jack into Düsseldorf’s famous Altstadt, an old part of town where cars were banned and most of the businesses were pubs or bars.
“It’s called the longest bar in the world,” Steffen informed him proudly as they wove their way through the crowd. Costumes were everywhere and people celebrated boisterously, singing, dancing and cheering the same word over and over again.
“What does hellow mean?” Jack asked.
“Helau? Oh, that doesn’t mean anything. It’s kind of a battle cry. Every city has its own cheer for Karneval. In Cologne it’s ‘Alaaf’. Don’t ever call that here in Düsseldorf, though, or you might get harmed. There is a fierce rivalry between the two cities.”
A number of obviously very drunk girls reeled toward Jack, giggling as they bumped into him.
“Tschuldigung!” one of the crowed, not looking sorry at all. Instead, she held on to his arm with every intention of hugging him, but her friends dragged her off.
“It’s only one in the afternoon and they are drunk?” he asked dumbfounded. Steffen only shrugged.
“It’s Altweiberfastnacht. You could translate it as ‘old hag’s day’. Women will do whatever they want on this day.”
“Like cutting off ties,” Jack said with a frown.
“It’s a wonderful chance to get rid of those pieces you really hate,” Steffen laughed.
“How long does this last?” Jack yelled above the noise of an improvised marching band that struck up a lively, if not very beautiful tune right next to them.
“Until Tuesday. On Wednesday the whole spook is over.”
“Six days?” Jack exclaimed. “They act like this for six whole days?”
“It’s Karneval! On Monday there’ll be a huge parade, 10 kilometers long. Wagons, bands, groups on foot, horses, more bands, more wagons. Hundreds of thousands of visitors come to watch the spectacle each year. They throw candy from the wagons and everyone is happy and partying.”
Jack was completely baffled. “Who’s organizing that?”
“There are any number of Karneval clubs participating. Those clubs are sort of like a military parody. They have uniforms and a strict hierarchy, with a leading prince, maiden and farmer, who get elected each season. Their sole purpose of existence is to celebrate Karneval. They are very serious about having fun. Want a beer?”
Jack declined. He still had trouble believing his eyes. When he had arrived in Düsseldorf the day before, the Germans had impressed him with their quiet and friendly efficiency. Everything had appeared to be perfectly organized. And now this – chaos?
“Why do they do this?”
“Oh, it’s a really old Catholic tradition, going back to the middle ages. For one stretch of time during the year the average citizen can break the rules and criticize the rulers without fearing consequences. You will see it in the parades on Monday. Many of the wagons feature caricatures of politicians. I’m sure your president will be very popular this year.”
Steffen grinned widely. “You will be staying, won’t you?”