>Anyone Up For a Walk Through Northumberland?

>The internet is, for all its faults, an amazing thing.

When I was around 12 years old I read a few books involving English Gypsies, and became fascinated by them and by England at the same time. One book in particular stayed with me, because of a long, descriptive passage of a walk from the Scottish border to Hadrian’s Wall. But that was pretty much all I could remember about this book. Title, author, character names were all lost to me.
Then recently I discovered that certain bookseller websites have forums where you can ask just this sort of thing. I wrote a post with the above information, and the dim memory of one brief bit about a gold coin offered and rejected. Within 24 hours I had a response and within the week I had the name of my book. There was no pressure to buy it anywhere, either, and I ended up ordering it somewhere else, but I am eternally grateful to the volunteer Book Sleuths who helped me out!
The book? It was Winifred Cawley’s “Feast Of The Serpent”, and after re-reading it I saw immediately why I was so fascinated. The protagonist, Adonell, is a teenager, half Gypsy, and when her father is killed her mother takes her (on foot, it’s 1649) from their Northumbrian village to reunite with her Romany family further south. On the way the reader is introduced to reading Gypsy signs, Neolithic cup-and-ring stones, the ruins of the Castle of Seven Shields (or Sewingshields), Hadrian’s Wall (Cawley calls it “the Picts’ Wall”), and the marginalized communities living within its fortification ruins. A bit of internet research convinced me that she was writing about what is now called Housesteads, near Barcombe Hill (from the Roman Vercovicium? which is called only Barcom in the book), and Vindolanda. The lake with the “steep crag beyond it” is surely Crag Lough, one of three lakes in the region which form a sort of triangle of land in between, which, Cawley writes, is sacred land to the Rom.
Of course, now all I want to do is fly to Newcastle and go on my own “Feast Of The Serpent” walkabout! I want to see these things! And again, the internet, with all its images, blogs and helpful websites, is an amazing thing.

Northumberland National Park
Housesteads Museum and Fort
Hadrian’s Wall Blog

>Forgotten Innsbruck: Amraser See


(Thanks to the writer of the Paschberg Blog for the photo above, which I have brazenly purloined. If you read German, his blog is an excellent source of local history and current affairs. I hope my advert for it makes up for my theft!)

I was walking through the southeast side of town the other week and noticed an unusual street sign — “Amraser See Strasse”. Amras Lake? Where the hell is that? Amras is a neighborhood on the edge of town, once a quiet outpost, now the business district. If you walk around beyond the shopping centers and superstores, you find corners of the old village tucked away in hidden places. But a lake? This was a new one for me.
A little internet research brought me closer — the Amraser See was a shallow lake fed by groundwater, the Aldranser Bach and a canal from the nearby Sill River (which joins the Inn a bit further on.) It was maintained for the royal fisheries when Innsbruck was a royal seat of power.

(Photo from Amraser Bote, June 2008 Issue)

An inn was first built near the lake in 1648, and stayed in business until about 20 years ago. The whole area was redeveloped in the early 90s, and apartment buildings stand there now, near the entrance to the autobahn. The “island” on the middle of the lake now holds a shopping center (DEZ.) Until all this construction, the lake had been slowly drying up over the years, but reemerged after exceptionally heavy rains. I believe the top photo was taken in 1985, when several parts of town had flooded.


>This is the old ski jump on Bergisel, functional and boring, which was built for the 1964 Winter Olympics. Oddly, I was unable to find a photo of it online anywhere — this is a screen grab of video, posted on Youtube. I remember when it was demolished one Sunday at exactly noon. From my terrace a few kilometers away, I watched the tower silently implode, and the boom arrived a second or two later.
The other day we revisited the new one. Its design and the cafe at the top make it a popular sight for tourists, but I have also been up there with locals, for an afternoon birthday gathering for example. The views on all sides are spectacular and so it’s worth doing at least once.

Hey, I can see my house from here. (Really.)
The old guidebooks will tell you that when you stand above the ski jump and look down, you see the cemetery directly beyond the landing strip. It’s true, that’s the Wiltener Friedhof down there. One can’t make it out in this photo but they had just turned the lights on — that row of colored tubes along the right side of the inrun. The effect is of slowing changing color through the evening.

>Erik Schinegger


UPDATE 16 June 2011: for info about the new film.

When I posted about Gretel Bergmann and Dora Ratjen, I came across another name from closer to home — Erika Schinegger, who was a shining star in the women’s downhill ski races in the mid 60s. Last night ORF aired a 2005 documentary film about Schninegger — Erik(A) — and the events of 1967, when the Austrian Olympic hopefuls submitted to medical testing by the IOC and it came out that Schinegger was, chromosomally speaking, male.
While Ratjen withdrew from society and never spoke to any reporters about his experiences, Schinegger is congenial and loquacious, as well as a very attractive man. Looking at old photos now, one clearly sees (in restrospect, of course) a young man’s face and body. But many of those interviewed said that they were surprised by the test results. They had assumed that Erika Schinegger was simply a healthy, somewhat homely country girl, with muscles from all that farm work.
Schninegger underwent corrective surgery and changed his name from Erika to Erik, and actually competed successfully on the men’s downhill team for a short time — until the Austrian Ski Federation made him resign, due, they told him, to “unrest in the media” and among his teammates. Schinegger returned to live in the village in Carinthia where he grew up, opened a ski school for children, and eventually married (and fathered a daughter.) If he had any bitterness in him, it was not apparent in the film.

The filmmaker interviewed a dozen or so people; family members, childhood friends, teammates, as well as extensive interviews with Schinegger himself, and pulls a neat trick by juxtaposing archival footage with that of modern teenagers at athletic training exercises. The effect is that you as the viewer begin to look at the girls with a clinical eye, noting the things that make them “feminine” — or not. You begin to both notice and question the “obvious” differences between the genders.
Update: I keep coming back to Caster Semenya and what the media circus last year has done to her life. Schinegger had two big things going for him – one was the time and place, and home being a place where he could go about having a normal life, once the locals adjusted (which they did), the other was that by his own accounts, while he grew up identifying as a girl from not knowing anything else, he tended toward boyish things — he tells of annual Christmas meltdowns as a child, when getting another doll instead of the long-desired tractor (the dolls all got their heads broken eventually!) and evidently was able to settle into being a guy relatively easily. The way he described it, it seemed like a natural progression for him. The contortions that Caster’s family/publicity agent/whoever is putting her through to enforce the idea that she’s a “real woman” can’t be good for her.