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.