Matt Bowen takes a walk through the home where Arnie dreamed his big dreams.

Mention Arnold Schwarzenegger and almost no one will imagine glow-in-the-dark condoms.

Yet there they are, sitting in his childhood home in the Austrian countryside. He's grinning on the cardboard packaging, one thumb up, above the Terminator quote, "I'll be back!"

It's a little-known piece of tongue-in-cheek merchandise surrounding a man who most people know from blockbuster Hollywood films or his two terms as "The Governator" of California. Maybe a handful of Kiwis have seen the 3 ($5) contraceptives as they're for sale at the Arnold Schwarzenegger Museum, housed in what the locals call his "Geburtshaus".

To get to Thal, the village where Arnie was born, raised and soon desperate to leave, you exit the country's second-largest city, Graz, and drive west through fairytale scenery. Mid-winter, the air hangs around freezing point and there's a castle-turned-tavern at the top of the forested ridge on the right.


To the left is a burbling stream with homes dotted alongside. Snow is piled on the verges and it colours the traditional pitched roofs pure white. Further on, the forest dominates and soon you reach a frozen lake, Thalersee. This was young Arnie's playground - he trained and frolicked on these shores as a country lad harbouring big dreams. Around the corner and up Linakstrasse, opposite ancient ruins and farmland, is his childhood home.

The flags bordering the carpark bear the stripes of Austria and the United States - two sides of a man, now 67, who is difficult to get a read on from his bodybuilding, acting and political careers. On the front lawn, where Arnie played as boy, is a bronze statue of the world's most muscular man in his prime. Five times Mr Universe; seven times Mr Olympia. Whatever your take on bodybuilding or anabolic steroid use, this is a specimen to behold.

Inside, the photographs through those glory days show the sculptor read those ripples well. Also inside is someone who could describe each of those bulges with pleasure. Host Andrea Schidlofski welcomes me with a thick accent, a la Arnie in the early years. She says 11,000 people visit the museum annually, mostly foreigners, following the grand opening in 2011. Schidlofski attended that event and tried to catch Arnie's eye, but his entourage was impenetrable. Later, she presumed he was arrogant.

"The last time he was here was in 2013, July 1, and he didn't tell us," she recalls over sweet complimentary coffee in a room dedicated to the Austrian Oak's childhood.

"He came in and I was sitting at reception, and [sigh], I was thinking it's a double because Arnold Schwarzenegger came in, no bodyguards. I went towards him. I was touching him. I couldn't believe it. I was asking him if he was a lookalike. I asked him, are you Mr Schwarzenegger? And he was saying, yes, can I enter my museum or not? Will you let me go in? He was laughing."

Schidlofski liked him. He was friendly, interested and gentle, she says.

They posed for a photograph together. Later, Schidlofski framed the picture, lavishly, and placed it beside her bed.

Action films, particularly the sci-fi series Terminator, launched Arnie's fame globally and much of the museum's second floor is dedicated to his many movie roles.

It features one of nine original Harley-Davidson motorcycles used in The Terminator; Conan the Barbarian's sword and Schwarzenegger's set chair from the movie Junior.

But it's the everyday things that bring him into your orbit. With his older brother and parents, Schwarzenegger lived on the second floor. The post-war 1950s kitchen was accurately recreated and, at Arnie's request, their original long-drop toilet has been rebuilt.

In his youth, wood and coal had to be carried upstairs and their oven was lit by hand. There was neither running water nor electric appliances. The Schwarzeneggers acquired their first refrigerator while Arnie was in secondary school and, as the story goes, mother Aurelia opened the fridge door and everyone shoved their hands in to see if it was indeed cold.

It appears young Arnold's future path in life was unlikely. He had to overcome his authoritarian father's disgust for bodybuilding and break through the conservative orthodoxy of the time.

For Arnie, his childhood bed sums up the museum's spirit best. "At first glance, it is nothing more than a tubular steel construction. But, who pauses here for a while, may feel what it truly was to me: The place where dreamed my biggest dreams, the place where my greatest wishes appeared before my eyes."

The Terminator started here, but it's unlikely he'll ever truly be back.



Air New Zealand offers daily flights to London from Auckland via Los Angeles with onward connections to Vienna on partner airlines. Graz, Austria's second biggest city, is a two-drive or short flight from there.