For an Austrian living in the United States, the fact that Arnold Schwarzenegger is governor of California has some advantages. When I get into a taxi now, I don't get asked about Joerg Haider, the right-wing politician who was on magazine covers all over the globe a few years back, or Kurt Waldheim and his World War II past. Instead it's all Arnold, all the time.
Americans light up when I say where I'm from, and out pours a torrent of questions -- and misapprehensions -- about the governor's homeland. Bodybuilding is not the most popular sport in Austria. (We prefer downhill skiing.) Nor is "Edelweiss," played at the governor's inauguration, our national anthem. (Most Austrians have never even seen "The Sound of Music.")
Misconceptions or not, California's new governor is a PR bonanza for my country. And while Schwarzenegger and his trajectory from a little village outside Graz to the Capitol in Sacramento is a big story here, it's huge in Austria too.
Does that mean that all Austrians are devoted Arnold fans? Not necessarily. The "Terminator" films were successful in Austria, as they were the world over, but in Viennese coffeehouses it may be easier to find people who dislike the violence in those movies than true Schwarzenegger fans. Nonetheless, Austrians from moderate-left Social Democrats to the conservative People's Party praised his political success.
Austrians realize that Schwarzenegger's starring role on the world stage came about because an ambitious young man decided to emigrate 35 years ago. They also know that internationalization, modernization and geography (proximity to the now-burgeoning former Eastern Bloc) have made Austria one of the richest nations of the European Union. Yet upward mobility, so much a part of U.S. culture, is not easily achieved in Austria.
And even though immigrants account for up to 20% of the population in Austria's big cities, it's a far cry from the U.S., where an immigrant with an Austrian passport can be elected to the highest office in a state. Not one member of our Parliament comes from the Serbian, Croatian or Turkish immigrant communities. On the other hand, could the consensus politics that have dominated postwar Austria have had something to do with Schwarzenegger's attempt to reach out to both Democrats and Republicans in California? Can a nice, moderate Austrian rescue the U.S. from what some Europeans see as conservative hard-liners in Washington?
And what more can Austria expect from Schwarzenegger's American success? Our politicians hope it will lead to stronger ties between California and Austria. The rest of us hope that the phrase "Austro American" can now compete with "Italian American," "Greek American" and all the others in the most powerful nation on Earth.