I was overcome by both relief and joy when I read that the remains of explorer Matthew Flinders, who went sailing on the big ocean in the sky 200 plus years ago, was discovered in the graveyard being excavated at Euston station to make way for the new high-speed London and Birmingham railway line. Flinders was the first explorer to circumnavigate the island he would called Terra Australis; to be abbreviated latter to Australia. Mathew Flinders is held in high esteem in Australia; it’s hard to find a place where his name doesn’t appear. Mountain ranges, national parks, islands, rivers, schools, and even one of Melbourne’s main city streets, together with Australia’s oldest train station, are named after him. Outside of St Paul’s Cathedral, just down from Flinders street, is a statute of Flinders standing on the prow of a boat, braced against the wind, being brought to shore by two seamen.
The statue is a resting spot for Melbourne’s seagulls; perhaps they enjoy watching the bustle of the trams, and commuters hurrying into Flinders Street Station. The statue always seems to be stained with seagull droppings. I wonder if the splashes are caused by the seagulls excitement at seeing the blur of the number eight tram on it’s journey to the beach alongside Beaconsfield Parade; or maybe they’re fulfilling a promise made to their ancestors. It’s without question that fish and sea birds would have fallen into the hands of the HMS Investigator’s cook during the circumnavigation of Terra Australis. It seems that the seagulls will never forget those that passed before them.
In the seventies I wandered along the unmapped hippie trail through Europe and the Middle East. A few years later I wandered on a similar journey of exploration through South East Asia; still searching for inspiration and idealism in the ordinary. There were times on both journeys when I was overcome by bouts of homesickness, depression, withdrawal, anxiety, and anger. As I look back and remember the heartaches, joy, and hardships of the journeys, I can understand my smorgasbord of feelings; I was experiencing culture shock. I stood in front of the sea gull stained bronze statue, looking up at Mathew Flinders, and wondered if he experienced culture shock on his long journeys of exploration. He had to think of the mother country when he looked out at the distant horizon across the vast and desolate sea. I wonder if he saw in the glow of the sun reflecting off the blue sea the, bucolic, rolling green and brown pastures dotted with animals and farmhouses, and separated by thick tangled hedgerows, of his homeland.
I’ve learnt there are several strategies to combat culture shock. One of the best is to find a healthy distraction. Mathew Flinders certainly found a spot-on distraction; he never set sail on his epic voyages of discovery and exploration without his cat Trim. Another sure-fire strategy to minimise the symptoms of culture shock is to learn about the culture, customs, and foods of a foreign country. Before travelling to that country it’s good to slowly integrate the differences, and variances in cultures and practices into your daily routine.
Before Flinders sailed down to the southern continent he would have known that Australians put tomato sauce on anything that doesn’t move. To avoid culture shock he’d have insisted that tomato sauce was put on everything served at the captain’s table during the voyage down under; even on the seagulls that had been lightly sautéd, and simmered in broth for three hours. Australians have a love affair with tomato sauce; they call it sauce, or dead horse. Most Australians will tell you there isn’t a food that doesn’t taste better with a squirt of sauce. Sauce elevates the taste of a bacon and egg roll, a meat pie, a steak sandwich, mashed potatoes, a sanger sandwich, and chips, and makes them an even more succulent and moreish experience.
When you ask for sauce with your pie at a cafe or cake shop you’ll get a single serve, squeeze on dispenser; a squeeze-mate to Aussies. The squeeze-mate is another great Australian invention. It’ll be spoken of in the same proud, revered way the Hills clothes hoist and the Vicar lawn mower is. The squeeze-mate will take it’s place in Aussie history as the thingamajig that did away with sauce getting all over your fingers, instead of your pie, when you’re messing around trying to tear open one of those small sachets of sauce. On a recent sojourn back to the Lucky Country I experienced my first squeeze-mate. It happened in a Puckle Street, Moonee Ponds, cake shop; there were a couple of squeeze-mates on the plate with my pie. At the time I didn’t know it was a squeeze mate. I laboured for several minutes trying to peel the top off from the corner and then sheepishly confessed to the serving lady I couldn’t peel the top off of the sauce packet. I asked if I could I have another one, suggesting there was something wrong with the packet of sauce she gave me. She took the squeeze-mate from my plate and squeezed it backwards between her thumb and index finger. Instantly there was sauce on my pie. A squeeze-mate’s simple and easy to use once you get the hang of it; it’s all in the squeeze.
You could bet there was as much fresh caught seafood served to the crew of the HMS Investigator each day as you’d find in a Melbourne fish ‘n chip shop window. Nothing beats an order of a piece of flake and chips; except a barramundi fillet, or whiting with chips. Aussies love their seafood; a perfect summers day is downing a few cold ones while throwing some flathead and prawns on the barbie. No ones going to be throwing a few shrimp on the barbie. Shrimp don’t exist Down Under; shrimp are prawns. Some might say it’s disrespectful to an Aussie to call a prawn a shrimp. To avoid culture shock, and to be mindful of an Aussie’s feelings, Flinders probably had his crew practice using the word prawn as they do in Terra Australis.
Don’t come the raw prawn with me, mate
Bruce was a real prawn when he drank too much
Graham went off like a bucket of prawns in the sun
Flinders would have know that Aussies love their Vegemite; that iconic thick, dark brown, concentrated yeast extract made from leftover brewer’s yeast. The spread of dreams is an Australian lunchtime favourite. A basic Vegemite sandwich is two slices of white buttered bread, spread with Vegemite, and then folded onto each other; sometimes it’s jazzed up by adding either cheese, lettuce, avocado, or slices of tomato or apple. Australians will add a tablespoon or more of Vegemite to soup stocks, stews, and gravies to make them taste just right. And let’s not forget Vegemite Soldiers; when Vegemite toast is cut into small fingers to dip into a soft boiled egg.
Vegemite would have been included in the HMS Investigator’s provisions. To reduce the effect of culture shock Flinders would have insisted his crew have, every now and then, a ration of Vegemite on their ship’s biscuit. Imagine the joy when he approved a ration of Vegemite for each sailor and their biscuit. Ship’s biscuits are a hard, dry piece of bread; made simply by mixing together flour, water and salt.
The biscuits were sometimes called hardtack. Before the hardtack’s could be eaten, the rock hard discs had to be soaked in the cook’s stew, or water, to soften them. Sometimes the only way to eat the biscuits was to wait until they became stale and soft. As the crew savoured the rich taste of Vegemite I imagine there was lots of drinking mugs being banged on the table to set the tempo for singing a rousing rendition of
We’re happy little Vegemites
As bright as bright can be
We all enjoy our Vegemite
For Breakfast, Lunch and Tea
Our mummies say we’re growing stronger
Every single week
Because we love our Vegemite
We all adore our Vegemite
It puts a rose in every cheek
It’s a penny to a quid there was no eating with the hands when the HMS Investigator approached the coast of Terra Australis. Flinders would have required that the dinner table be set with a knife and fork. Even though the fork was still a novelty in England he would have insisted that the cutlery be used just as Aussies do. Australian dining etiquette emphasises keeping the knife and fork in each hand. The knife is used to cut food into bite size pieces, move food around the plate, and coax food onto the fork. You won’t see an Aussie using a fork to cut their food. I’m sure the crew of the HMS Investigator practised the Aussie cutlery technique, and were eager to set ashore to hunt kangaroo and trawl for prawns; impatient to prepare a banquet and to show off their new cutlery skills to the indigenous people of the Australian mainland.
You’ll need to excuse me. I’ve got a few people coming over for a small backyard soiree and I’m trying something new with spaghetti. It’s genius; I’m combining Vegemite with spaghetti, Parmesan and butter and then throwing in a pound of steamed king prawns. The spaghetti should be al dente by now.