He Just Smiled and Gave Me a Vegemite Sandwich


I have a confession to make. You may never have guessed this. Or you may be one of the few who notice instantly.

I am very good at fitting in, assimilating, integrating – all those words that have become slightly uncomfortable in the past decade or so. Maybe let’s say I’m great at inclusion. That’s better. So here comes my (not so secret) secret. I am a foreigner. An alien in New York – or maybe more of a Kraut Down-under. That’s right. I’m German but I have successfully slip-slop-slapped for the past nine summers without attracting much attention. Ha!

The emphasis here is on much… There are, as anyone from a non-English-speaking background knows, many ways to expose yourself as a stranger; simply saying von vord will do it. Or two, or three. Sentences that I think sound perfectly Aussie twist into exoticisms and make me stand out like a sore finger… or is it thumb?

There have been many blushing moments in my Australian life caused by, well, me. Me using expressions in a funny (both funny haha and funny strange) way, me using the wrong word, me pronouncing something right only to cause an embarrassing moment of silence. And since we’re doing this – I’m outing myself – let me treat you to some anecdotes.

When I first arrived in Australia, a fresh-faced 20-year old straight out of school, I was afraid of buying water at a Macca's (ha – see how I said Macca’s?). I knew that saying ‘one bottle of water please’ would sound something like ‘von bottle offff varter pleeeeease’, and that was just embarrassing. I’d rather die of dehydration. I (relatively) quickly got over myself, though. I wouldn’t be writing this article – nine Australia Days of listening to the Hottest 100 later – if I hadn’t, would I?

Once I started talking, my English improved quickly. Well, I should say, my Australian improved quickly. Before leaving Germany, I had invested in an Australian dictionary, so I knew words like barbie, mozzie, arvo, and billie. But now I was learning the real stuff. Stuff like ‘Far out, Brussel sprout’ and ‘Ya reckon!?’ and ‘You beaut’. Amazing. Within a short time, I was able to fully comprehend Australian slang. I was integra… I mean, I was including myself with real, fair dinkum Aussies. Oi, oi, oi.

In a way, the fact that I quickly became part of Oz made it even harder to take linguistic set-backs. But the more comfortable and relaxed I felt, the easier they slipped out. I guess I was letting my guard down. Which, don’t get me wrong, was great. I felt at home. And slightly on edge. I indulged in Tim Tam slammers and numbed my acute embarrassment with endless Vegemite toasts.

I did some of my best language-gaff work during my first few years in Australia. But don’t just take my word for it, let me recount some of my hilarious (in hindsight) moments.

Me (at work, trying to help out an older gentleman): Can I pick up your crotch for you?
Gentleman looks nervously at his wife. Wife looks sourly at me and picks up his crutch.

Me (at a car repair place): Hi, I’m here to pay my reparations.
Luckily I had lost most of my German accent by then… awkward! Later on, I imagined the mechanic to have answered,’Ok, that makes 132 billion gold marks’. To this day I am a little disappointed that didn’t happen.

Me (to my boyfriend): I think I’m going to get one of those strap-ons.
Boyfriend (wide-eyed): You what?
Me: You know. The ones that strap your phone onto your arm while you run.
Boyfriend (looks relieved): Erm, yes, a strap-on…

There is one incident that I consider the pinnacle of my foreign ridiculousness. This moment is the one that stays with me – it’s the one I think of when someone asks me about embarrassing stuff that happened to me. I still blush when thinking of it.

It was during my first year at uni, in one of those ethics classes they make everyone take to hedge against future business leaders becoming mafia ring leaders, or worse, hedge fund managers.

Before plunging into this story, I have a confession to make. I’ve been nurturing a bad habit for a while now. It may be due to my European superiority, or because, sometimes, I’m a jerk. Or perhaps it’s because I like things said right. Yeah, I’m pretty sure that must be it. In any case, I have this desire to pronounce words the way they are pronounced in their original version. For example, I dislike people saying ‘latte’ (imagine saying it how people next to you in the coffee shop usually say it). Wrong! It’s a short ‘a’ and the ‘e’ is pronounced like in ‘Ben’, not like in ‘cafe’! Try ordering a laaaattayy in Italy all you’ll get is confused faces. I have other examples, but I’ll spare you.

Back to business ethics 101, first uni semester.

When discussing right and wrong, it is almost impossible not to mention Immanuel Kant. After all, he’s the father of the categorical imperative. We were comparing Kant to Bentham – the classic – and I wanted in on the discussion. I was an ambitious first year student.

Also, I knew how to correctly pronounce Immanuel Kant, since he’s a fellow German. I went right ahead and was calling out Kants, until I saw the tutor had turned red and was clearly wondering whether he should put an end to my speech. And then I realised what was happening. Unfortunately, Immanuel’s last name sounds exactly like that swear word – Crass Unutterable Nasty Term – no one dares to say in front of their parents, especially not their mother. Oops!

So there it is. You laugh? Well, so do I now. I still cringe a little, though. It is proof that I can be disarmed, found out, exposed.

It is also proof that my life is hilarious. And humbling, exciting, and challenging. I learn stuff every day, I cringe when I get it wrong, but then I move on. And sometimes I join in the laughter. Nine years of shrimps, no, prawns on the barbie have taught me a little something about not taking myself too seriously, and all is apples.