Hasta La Vista, Arnie

Steirerblut ist kein Himbeersaft

The tiny village of Thal near Graz, population not quite 2,400, is where, in 1947, a mighty Styrian oak tree first saw the light of day. Even after its transatlantic transplantation, its roots remain firmly planted in Thal. In fact, you can't help but stumble across them as soon as you enter town. You can feel the presence of the icon Arnold Schwarzenegger—bodybuilder, action hero, entrepreneur, and politician—everywhere you go. With my brother in tow, I paid a visit to Thal to walk in the footsteps of the most famous Austrian after Mozart. 

Klaus and I grew up in Upper Styria, in a small apartment facing a cow pasture where we spent our days fantasizing about leaving the suffocating provincial confinement behind. We dealt with the boredom through escapism of all sorts—for my brother it was mainly exercise and, as soon as he was old enough, weight training. He'll be a certified professional fitness trainer soon. We're like Arnie, Styrian boys dreaming of far-off places.

Schwarzenegger's birthplace in Thal is now a museum. It is there that Klaus and I met with Peter Urdl, Arnie's childhood best friend and elementary school classmate. They still facetime with each other every two weeks. 

Urdl tells us how his buddy quit his job as a baker's apprentice after just a month—the flour, the dust, and getting up early weren't his thing. His apprenticeship as a salesman at a carpentry supply company was more to his liking. As legend has it, his job there was mainly to lift heavy things. His boss liked to say, "As long as we have Arnold, we don't need a forklift." Even at 13, Urdl says, Arnie was unusually determined and inquisitive, dreaming of going to the USA and becoming Mr. Universe. As we all know, that was more than just wishful thinking. In 1968 he went into exile and became world famous. Where there's a will, there's a way (out)!

"Neither of our parents had any money to take us on vacation, we were working-class children. We would vacation at Lake Thal," says Peter Urdl. At the time, the lake was a training ground for the Austrian muscle scene—not bodybuilders, but weightlifters and triathletes. They trained with homemade equipment, including a pull-up bar suspended between two trees (photo). Arnold and his friend Peter Urdl begged first the lifeguard, then the athletes, for permission to use the equipment. Ten years later, Schwarzenegger was a two-time Mr. Universe and "Hercules in New York." 

Lake Thal is also where, in 1986, Schwarzenegger proposed to John F. Kennedy's niece, Maria Shriver, on a small rowboat. The "Promise Boat " still lies in state next to the lake, as an exhibit and memento, outfitted with a faded photo of the young couple. Walking along the shore, we decide to rent a boat ourselves. We've chosen the most beautiful day of the year for our excursion. The summer air is heavy, it's supposed to rain again tomorrow. I can picture him well, 13-year-old Arnie, very tall for his age, walking down to the lake on a summer afternoon just like this one. A young man who wanted to set out into the world and leave his provincial hometown behind—yet who never quite left this magical place. 

As we return to the dock, we run into Peter Urdl again, Schwarzenegger's old friend who stayed behind in Thal. Drinking a spritzer at the boat rental, Urdl is in high spirits. He'd spent the day showing a group of children and teens around the museum. At the end of the tour, they took a group photo next to a life-size statue of Schwarzenegger—larger-than-life for most. After each tour, he sends the photos to Arnold in California so he can sign them on his iPad.  

The museum in Arnold Schwarzeneggers birth home was opened on Oktober 7 2011 and has been drawing crowds ever since. It's opened daily.