by Werner Kopacka
“What a great day it has been!” he said with a broad smile, when he stepped into the car that would take him back to the airport of Graz.
The date was June 21st, 2011 and Arnold Schwarzenegger had come back to Thal, the place where he was born, and where he had spent the first 18 years of his life. The day had been a warm emotional bath in goodwill and support. Everyone could see how comfortable he felt in his old surroundings.
Of course the Thalers knew about the troublesome times he had gone through. The illegitimate son, his separation from Maria, the break-up of his family, the media attacks. Still, he had always been their pride, and they showed him that here, in Thal, nothing had changed. He had come to visit his birth-house, which was converted into the “Arnold Schwarzenegger museum.” On July 30th, Arnold’s 64th birthday, the Museum would open to the public.
Thal is a village with roughly 2300 inhabitants, 3.2 kilometres away from the city-limits of Graz, the capital of the Austrian province of Styria. Most Thalers work in Graz, but live in Thal because living is cheaper and more peaceful there. For the people of Graz, Thal has always been something like a recreation spot. There is a little lake with rowboats and fishing rods for rent in summer. In winter, when the lake freezes over, people come here to ice-skate.
One of the boats — they say it was the real one — is on display on the lakeshore. “Boat of promise” says a sign under pictures that show a young and happy Arnold, embracing a young and happy Maria. More than 20 years ago he rented this boat, rowed Maria to the middle of the lake and asked her to marry him. Since then, many young couples are said to have come here to pose in front of the boat, and to pop the same big question.
As far as anyone in Thal is concerned, the Schwarzenegger-Shriver story might just as well end there. The clouds that have darkened Schwarzenegger’s life in California haven’t reached Thal. Here Arnold represents bright sunshine. “He is one of us,” they say, “and when he needs people to stand by his side, he should come home to Thal.”
Needless to say, the whole village assembled to welcome him during his June visit. Even his grammar school teacher, now a 90-year-old lady, was here. And all his early bodybuilding buddies. And the man who lived next door when they were boys. He had practiced on his trumpet, while Arnold lifted his weights with the windows of his first-floor room open.
“Franzl was my personal musician,” Arnold grinned. “Sweating was easier with him playing.”
In the old days Thal was nothing more than a sleepy little village with a sleepy little lake. The city-people in Graz smiled upon the villagers as country bumpkins.
Their claim to fame came with Arnold. Through him–so they think–the name Thal is now known worldwide. Somehow it is true. Look up Arnold’s biography on the Internet, and Thal is mentioned as his birthplace, and briefly described. Now it is home to the only Arnold Schwarzenegger museum in the world.
There is also an “Arnold-Schwarzenegger-hiking-path.” The lake restaurant serves Schnitzel a la Arnold and Apple-Strudel a la Aurelia, the latter made according to a recipe from Arnold’s mom, Aurelia Schwarzenegger, who was by all accounts a tremendous cook. And there is of course the aforementioned boat.
Yes, the marriage that started in that boat has crumbled apart, but that is no reason for the Thalers to remove the boat from the lakeshore. “Couples still come and have their pictures taken in front of it,” they say.
Arnold has promised that he will return to Thal again for a formal opening ceremony for the museum, perhaps in October. That might be one reason for a visit. The friendly people of Thal and their smiling, welcoming faces might be another. Here he is still a hero.
Werner Kopacka is a journalist in Graz and author of 16 books. His work can be found at his home page.
*Photo courtesy of cocoate.com.