SYDNEY - They lost me on the vegemite. That's where I stopped understanding Australia.
After two weeks in Sydney, I was all set. I was ready to sell everything back home, pack up my note pads and come over for good, for a lifetime of sunny days and cool nights on the harbor. I was hooked.
I was gone, ready to trade my car for water taxis, my friends for mates, college football for the cricket beat at the Sydney Morning Herald.
This place will do that to you. These people, too.
You spend a little time getting smiled at everywhere you go, being made to feel you did something special by just walking through a door, and you want to spend more time like that.
So, I had it all planned. All I had to do was learn to surf and maybe buy a 4x4 for those ocassional trips to the bush. Even had my eye on a little place next to Tom and Nicole's on Rushcutter Bay.
What a plan it was.
And then I tasted it.
Now my only plans involve a kerosene gargle and a tongue transplant.
I had heard about vegemite, the concentrated yeast extract that is considered somewhat of a treat by Australians. It sounded foul to me, but I looked around and saw how these people had gotten everything else so right and figured they couldn't be so wrong about something else.
I had also heard that it was kind of strong. That's like saying Inge de Bruijn is sort of blonde.
Now, I'm not sure how to get into this without offending someone who might enjoy a bit of the 'mite from time to time, so I'll put it mildly and say it is, without question and without close rival, the most repulsive substance on the face of the planet. You couldn't put three other rotten tastes together and come up with something this bad. Guys who work in kennels pick things off their shoes that taste better than this.
It makes the stuff you put on pen caps to stop kids from chewing them taste like a dessert. If somebody told me using vegemite could give me Michael Johnson's abs and Fabio's hair, I wouldn't rub it on my body, let alone ever eat it again.
That's how awful it was.
I'm not sure if maybe there weren't a few too many mites in my veg, but I did not like this stuff for a second. And I couldn't see how anybody could.
At first look, you think you might be getting away with something, that its vileness might have been overrated. Because it looks almost like a dark, chocolate paste. But that optimism disappears when you start to spread it and it infects a piece of bread like black shoe polish on a white buck.
And, if you make the mistake of tasting it, the sensation you get is kind of similar to licking the tire of an 18-wheeler that just ran over a goat.
I can't compare it to any actual foods, only say that it's kind of a combination burnt-rubber, ocean-floor taste with a stronger salt finish than a New York street after an ice srtorm. I mean, I broke a sweat just trying to swallow that first bite, which even if my life depended on it, will be my last bite.
They say that's a common reaction, that the taste is a little unusual for Americans. Good thing it is.
They also say it's a little too potent the way I tried it, that if you put it on toast and cut it with butter, it's not bad. But I was not going to find out. After almost redecorating the inside of the media village cafeteria, I made the independent editorial decision that my research was finished.
And so, sadly, was my great plan.
I mean, how could you ever trust people who tell you they like the taste of salted tar? How could you live in a city that might have vege-yuk on its breath?
It makes no sense, either, because food seems to be a strength here. Everything else I have tried here I've liked, although the kangaroo was a little tough and slightly gamey. (I haven't found a good koala take-out place, but I'm looking!)
So it's my loss (and your's, of course) that at the end of these Olympics I'll head home, back to burgers and chips that aren't fries and sandwhich spreads you can actually eat. That's a shame, too, because I was beginning to like it here, beginning to think I could get used to clean streets and low prices and postcard beaches right in the middle of the city.
But vegemite killed the dream. For a second, I thought it would kill me, too.
Morning News sports columnist Tim Guidera can be reached at 652-0352.
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