Down under

Men At Work were an Australian band that managed to have a huge  international hit with Downunder.  This was at a time when (a) Australian bands didn’t have international hits, and (b) New Zealanders still liked to live vicariously through Australia when they experienced success. 

In 1982 the main thing that struck me as cool about this song was that it mentioned Vegemite.  Mentioning Vegemite meant that New Zealanders were in on the reference, and most of the world wasn’t.  It made us feel that the song belonged to us even though we’re not downunder.  Of course, New Zealand is even further under than Australia, but the phrase downunder means Australia and not New Zealand.

New Zealand is like a small town that can only be known for one thing at a time.  It’s not one of those countries that people can make lists about.  When I was a kid New Zealand was known for sheep.  For a while we were known mainly for the All Blacks.  Truthfully though we weren’t known for either of those things outside rugby playing countries.  For the rest of the world we didn’t exist.  I had an American pen pal for a few years when I was at school.  She said she told two friends about New Zealand and the first one thought it was in Africa (isn’t everything?), and the second one complimented my English (“don’t they speak French up there?”).

Then Lord of the Rings happened.  New Zealand is pretty much stuck on that now (although some people know Flight of the Conchords).  I prefer the Conchords thing.  Lord of the Rings bores me after book/movie one.

You can just forget all this if you’re Australian though.  Almost any Australian male who meets a New Zealander will start in on a long series of sheep jokes and impressions.  I once worked in a school in Japan where I was the only non-Australian.  It wasn’t pretty.  First off let me say that there are way more jokes about bestiality than you can even imagine.  Way, way, more.  Secondly, a certain type of Australian male will never, ever, ever tire of making these jokes if there is a New Zealander in the room.  It is actually impressive.

To deal with this I tried a few strategies.  At first I laughed along (this is called being a “good sport”).  Then I tried ignoring it.  Next I pretended to be offended by it.  None of this worked.  What worked was pity.  I realised that some Australian men have a complex and all-consuming sexual fetish which involves imagining sex acts between New Zealand citizens and sheep.  Once I had made this connection life became easier for me.  Every joke became a cry for help.

Back to Vegemite. 

When we lived in Japan, Cathy and I had jars of Vegemite shipped to us.  I think I have been having Vegemite on toast every morning for about twenty five years now.  If I can’t have it I feel like something is missing in my morning.  For those of you who don’t know it, it’s hard to explain what Vegemite actually is.  The label says it is a yeast extract.  Sure.  Like that explains anything.  The British original is called Marmite and, hilariously, the original downunder Vegemite was called Pawill (get it?  Ma might but Pa will?)

It’s a savoury spread.  That’s all. 

Antipodeans sometimes like to set traps for unsuspecting North Americans by laying out a piece of bread with this thick, dark brown substance on it and saying it’s a chocolate spread.  If you are from North America, and you come across an Australian leaving pieces of bread out covered in thick, brown spread and talking about chocolate, offer them a Doctor Pepper (seriously?  you actually drink this stuff?) and slip quietly out of the room.  I have seen what happens when a person from Wisconsin goes through the mental horror of having to change gear in their head from chocolate to “what the f*&k is this sh%t?” in one second, and it ain’t pretty.

Below you can find a guide to making your very own Vegemite sandwich that I prepared for you.

You’re welcome.

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17 thoughts on “Down under”

  1. I loved this post. Way to take on that Vegemite elephant in the room — that is, your American readers wondering, so what about those sheep?

    Things I know about New Zealand:

    A.) You wrap your crib mattresses in plastic to prevent gassing and have effectively eliminated SIDS. Therefore I did. (Okay, is this bunk? Because my New Zealander mom friend Wendy told me it was legit.)
    B.) You’re right next to Oz. (I have good friends in Brisbane and when I visit them soon, we’re going to swing by New Zebra and say “Whassup, JP!”)
    C.) Flight of the Conchords.

    Things I thought I knew about New Zealand:

    A.) Vegemite is made of mushed up bugs. Someone told me this circa 1982 when that song hit the charts.

    The sheep thing is new to me. Thanks for educating me on your animal husbandry customs.

  2. A) We have not eliminated SIDS and I haven’t met anyone who wraps their crib matresses in plastic.
    B) We are right next to Oz if you have a jet plane. Otherwise 1400 kms is a long swim.
    C) Flight of the Conchords.

    A) If bugs have yeast in them then we can’t actually rule this out.

    I’m just going to leave your last comment alone.

  3. I love Flight of the Conchords.
    I wish America could be identified with something as awesome as that. This is what we have:
    pink slime

  4. Interesting… we have marmite in England of course… I remember when the song came out, no one knew what Vegemite was… so the TV shows would say “it’s marmite” and everyone would nod their heads knowingly and go back to their business.

    You’re absolutely spot on about the perception of New Zealand in the rest of the world. If I’m honest, I really didn’t know how… well… don’t hit me, but English you guys are until I read your post. I say that because I honestly thought NZ was more like Oz than England. I hope you’re not offended by that LOL

    To clarify, you mention a LOT of things in your posts that I had only ever heard about in England – not just the songs, but things like Smash Hits. I used to love reading that.

    NZ was known in England for the lamb (still is, to some extent) but yes, the younger generation think of Peter Jackson and Lord of the Rings, which I always thought was kinda sad because I know there’s so much more to NZ that those movies.

    Anyway… I just wanted to give my humble Brit point of view. I love reading your posts and comparing your life in the 80’s to mine. There’s an awful lot of similarities LOL

  5. Cathy tells me the mattress wrapping thing is legit in that some people advocate it – but there is conflicting info out there about it, and officially in NZ they tend to focus on non-smoking, warm households etc to reduce SUDI. Certainly it is not universally followed, and we didn’t.

  6. ah your story there makes the Autralian stuff from Flight of the Conchords nake so much more sense!

    You forgot Bungee Jumping though, your also known for that 😉

  7. True.

    And kiwi(fruit) I suppose.

    But we stole them from other countries. Actually everything on the list (except Brett and Jermaine) is stolen but let’s leave that alone.

  8. Great. Now That I already sent mean Facebook messages to my New Zealand friend who told me I should wrap my crib mattress in plastic (but not the babies heads, right?). I also included, “JP said you don’t eat bugs either — what do you have to say for yourself?”

  9. I think it was compulsory in New Zealand. Man or Muppet? A profound thought for all of us I think.

  10. You do realise that everyone knows everyone in New Zealand? She’s probably coming over to my house as I type this.

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