Miller Time in the Church of Arnold

Austrians and their admirers (Germans) regularly convene at Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Santa Monica restaurant, Schatzi on Main, to mingle and drink themselves into gemütlichkeit — that feeling of homey warmth and comfort found in Alps chalets after a skiing odyssey. Of course, Schatzi’s decor, replete with Souplantation-style houseplants, celebrity photos, red-brick ceilings and touches of Miami Vice, makes the place look more like a TGI Friday’s than an Alpine lodge. But despite its theme-restaurant faux pas — some call it schmaltzy Schatzi — the place manages to convey at least some semblance of a Biergarten, with high wood tables that make people want to mingle, and a setup that recalls Heurigers, those seasonal watering holes where Austrians go to celebrate the year’s new wine.

This past Thursday, the occasion was Schatzi’s monthly Alpine Mixer, which coincided with the Winter Olympics. Adorned with a name tag betraying my Semitic origins (my Austrian father’s surname wouldn’t fit in the space provided), I scanned the blond beauties and languid cigar smokers for the most Germanic names: I wanted to find out what L.A. Austrians thought of expatriation, the Olympic intrigues and, most of all, Arnold.

Almost no one paid attention to the Olympics playing on megascreens — these people were on European time and knew the results already. And even though Austria had a higher medal count than the U.S. at that point, most of the attendees refused to gloat.

“Ask us how we’re doing in the summer,” said Karl, an Austrian who’s lived in the U.S. for 25 years and worked on Arnold’s special-election campaign.

“The Alps, that’s all we have,” said Katinka, an energetic ball of a woman who looked like she’d devour a slalom course.

These putdowns were just the tip of an iceberg-sized inferiority complex I’ve noticed in this expatriate population, which, like my father’s generation, could never find Austria in American headlines unless the subject was Nazis or a ski-lift disaster. Most of the mixer’s attendees had fled Austria in search of more open economic horizons, abandoning their classic (but static) European socialist stances in favor of an American neoliberalism — the kind that belongs to winners.

“I’m actually a bodybuilder fan,” admitted Katinka.

What? Like, for Arnold?

“No, you didn’t hear me. I’m a Bode Miller fan.”

Really? More than . . . ?

“Oh yeah, more than the Hermannator. . . .”

Zero-for-five Bode was apparently more bodacious than the less-handsome but workaholic double-medalist Hermann Maier. The Viennese Sabine and Tyrollean Bernhard, a married couple visiting from Redding (whose Mount Shasta helped them get over their homesickness), also confessed to Millermania.

“He made his training with the Austrian team!” enthused Sabine between big smiles. “Austrians love Americans!”

Bernhard said he loves Bode’s “high-risk” skiing, a style so daring it forsakes medals altogether.

Suddenly, the two got into some marital discord over whether Bode sponsor Kelly’s — maker of peanuts and other salty snacks — was American or Austrian.

I took the opportunity to segue over to Anne (pronounced “Ahn-Nay”), a confident German woman who worked with Arnold from 1988 to 1993 — the golden years of Kindergarten Cop and Terminator 2. She first taught his mother English (“She was a fabulous student”) and then became his assistant.

“Arnold didn’t like the socialist system in Austria,” she explained. “He believes in the free market.”

Karl, who also worked with Arnie, told me a bad joke about Arnold’s upbringing (“There was no silver spoon . . . he grew up pumping iron!”) before speculating why Austrians here might be different from the Austrians they left behind: “There are the entrepreneurs versus the others who stay home and prefer security,” he said. “I can go back and they’ll be in the same job in the same place.” Karl also believes that Arnie’s barrage of ill-fated propositions was “the right thing to do” and that California definitely needs redistricting.

No one wanted to go on record trashing Arnold, especially in his church. Everyone spoke admirably of his improbable success and generosity toward other Austrians. One source who used to manage his fan mail described how letter after letter would arrive requesting favors or parts in films simply because of a shared nationality. Not one person condoned the decision to remove Schwarzenegger’s name from the city stadium in Graz, Arnold’s hometown, after the Stanley “Tookie” Williams clemency scandal.

“It makes Austria look very narrow-minded,” said Katinka. “They’ve never had gangs or violence or been out of the country, probably.”

Bernhard wanted to apologize on behalf of his countrymen:“It was completely stupid, completely the wrong reaction. No one should advise others what to do; he can’t overrule a law he didn’t make.”

Prodding these people was futile. Only at my parents’ house could I get the real dirty anecdotes, from my father, a man who spearheaded the fledgling Austrians Against Schwarzenegger campaign and refuses to set foot in Schatzi out of principle: “His restaurant is a joke,” Dad says. “For serious Austrians, to serve Wiener schnitzel in a roll is sacrilegious!”

After more discussion about how Schatzi often gets ridiculed for its brutal Californiazation of delicate Austrian cuisine — on the menu, one finds Mixed Greens Styria Style (ask for it at In-N-Out) and lingonberry sauce (now popular at the IKEA cafeteria) — Dad finally tells me the kind of story I thought I’d find at Schatzi, one that he says illustrates everything our governor would come to stand for:

Back in Austria during the ’60s, my father and his soccer buddies played a heated match with a rival team from Graz consisting entirely of bodybuilders, including a young Arnold Schwarzenegger. Intimidated at first, Dad’s team turned the tide and came out with a blowout win, aided in part by the Schwarzenegger team’s lack of agility and stamina. Most visceral in his mind was the “swoosh, swoosh, swoosh” of the bodybuilders’ thighs rubbing against each other:“I think we won because we could hear them coming from a mile away.”


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