Queen Kylie and Vegemite Values; Raising Australians in London

I sit at a desk made for smaller arms and legs. Shifting uncomfortably in the tiny plastic chair, I smile at the teacher before me. She smiles back, but it is a strained one; I can tell that the conversation we are about to have is not one she really wants to discuss.

‘So, Mrs. Ibbotson, I’m sure you’re wondering why we’ve called this meeting today.’

I nod. My son, happy, bright and healthy, has never given us any cause for concern. A rash of words go through my mind. Bullying. Bad behaviour. Struggling. I swallow them down.

‘Well, it’s actually about your son’s sandwiches.’

I pause. ‘I’m sorry, did you just say sandwiches?’

‘Yes. We’ve had some complaints.’

‘About his sandwiches?’

‘Yes,’ to her eternal credit, she remains straight-faced.

‘I don’t put any sort of peanuts in his lunchbox,’ I immediately reply. But she shakes her head.

‘Actually, it’s about their… smell.’

‘The smell of my son’s sandwiches?’

‘Yes.’

 

The penny drops. My son, a connoisseur of flavour who dislikes sweets, takes vegemite sandwiches to school.

‘We were wondering if you would consider making him something else?’ She smiles again, still strained and almost apologetic.

There is something to be said for Australian cuisine. As a child, growing up under a hot and ozone-layer free sky, food was as necessary for socialising as beer and cricket. Australians take great pride in their food. We barbecue year-round, making the simple act of searing meat a twelve-hour, grandiose affair. We send our children to school where meat pies are on offer at the canteen, dripping with ketchup. The sausage sizzle is a national institution, up there in the hallowed food hall of fame with Pavlova, Tim Tams, lamingtons, Anzac biscuits and Apricot Chicken. But nothing, nothing at all, can reach the heights of vegemite. Like it or loathe it, the yeast spread is a treasure, and Australians will eat it on toast or pasta, throw it into any stew, add it to chocolate. Vegemite is beloved, and as passionately defended as God, Queen and Country. In fact, it is our country, as ingrained in our national psyche as Kangaroos, Koalas, Neighbours and Kylie Minogue (Love ya, Kylie!).

But try explaining this to a British teacher in a South London primary school. Try explaining to anyone outside of Australia the glory that is a Golden Gaytime.

‘I don’t think the smell of vegemite is that bad,’ I finally say.

She sighs. ‘You must acknowledge that it is quite… strong.’

Fun fact: The Romans were terribly fond of a fermented fish paste called Garum. The scent of Garum was by all accounts wretched, so bad that producing it was outlawed in certain towns. However, the flavour was said to be superb, and the Romans added it to nearly everything. Turns out the Romans didn’t just build the odd road, they also paved the way for vegemite, modern-day food of the Gods.

‘It smells like a brewery,’ I say, not at all helping my case. The teacher does not reply.

It’s hard work, living 12,000 miles from home. Especially at this time of year, when the constant grey skies and drizzle make me want to pull the hair from my head and scream. There are times when I am made breathless with homesickness. Times when I want to weep for the sight of the Harbour Bridge at dusk, the smell of the blue mountains in the air. Times when I long for a proper flat white, served on a deck by the bluest ocean you will ever see. My husband and I occasionally discuss moving to Sydney, but we are tied to London both financially and emotionally. We love London… but the call of an outdoor lifestyle and sunshine is at times hard to ignore.

My children are both Australian citizens, and because I was born in Australia, their children (if they choose that path) will be too. Their dual nationality is a gift, two passports that give them access to the world. And so, I raise them with Australia in mind, shipping in and cooking Australian food, teaching them Australian history and geography, letting them watch Australian television. For international day at my son’s school, I made what felt like a thousand lamingtons (and making lamingtons is flipping hard work). In the car we sing Australian songs, and we mark Australia Day and Anzac Day. My daughter, just two, is already learning to describe things as ‘noice and unusual’. I’m doing my best to acknowledge their cultural heritage.

And that includes letting my son take vegemite sandwiches to school.

The teacher awaits my reply.

‘Unless you tell me a child is allergic to vegemite, my son will continue to take his sandwiches to school.’

Outwardly, I am polite and restrained. Outwardly, I am the very image of a London mum. Inside, I am passionate. Inside, at that moment, I am Australian.

And anyone who has a problem with my son’s sandwiches can rack off.

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Rachel Millington is a mum of two. In her spare time, she works in PR, hanging out with people who are all a good 10 years younger and a lot more glamorous than her, which is terribly good for the self-esteem. She also volunteers for Mind & MumsAid, because she very definitely believes that maternal mental health matters. She can be found tweeting (/ranting about politics) @rachmillington and is also charting her absolute hatred and despair of the weaning process on instagram @mummyledweaning (whoever said it was easier second time around LIED).