>>> Bang for Your Buck
By staff writer David Nelson

July 9, 2007

Essential New Word of the Week: coffeemorgue (definition hint: caffeine cadavers)

This past week was one of revelry as America celebrated her independence. I’m sure you, like all patriotic Americans, observed this somber holiday by exploding the most life-threatening devices that a roadside Indian was willing to sell you. And good for you. George Washington didn’t fight off those space pirates just so you could keep the correct number of fingers on your hand.

Likewise, Canada (also known as “America’s hat”) observed its birthday this past week. Canadians can’t really get the same illegal fireworks that Americans can. That’s why I’m stuck behind a Lexan shield watching crappy sparks fizzle out at four feet, while a government-appointed wrangler tries to teach me safety rhymes. If these holidays were actual birthday parties, Canada would have been the least popular kid in school.

And that whole premise got me thinking. Nations of the world are always being personified, but never as kids. Before Uncle Sam’s little beard grew in, he must have had to deal with puberty. I want to know more about who the guy was before his brother had kids. And I’ll use every resource at my disposal (mostly Wikipedia) trying to find out.

“Instead of Uncle Sam, it might have been Toucan Sam, who wanted YOU for the U.S. Army.”

Personifications are meant to embody a country’s very disposition. It’s not hard to figure out why we do this. If an editorial cartoonist wants to make an allegory of America kicking some ass, it’s easier to draw Uncle Sam than the geographic outline of the country itself. Besides, we all know that Florida would be mistaken for a flaccid dong.

Almost every country has a figure like this. You and I might not be able to appreciate or even understand the quiet dignity of Mother Svea,but rest assured, she’s quite popular in Sweden. And if you ever go to India, please buy me a print of Bharat Mata. Also, try not to contract dysentery.

I enjoy research, but I had to fill in a lot of biographical gaps with my own impressions, gleaned from the finest international education that IHOP could provide. And my degree in cultural ethnography came with a side of bacon! Since I’ve already mentioned him, I’ll begin with Uncle Sam. He seems like a “me first” kind of kid anyhow.

Uncle Sam (U.S.)

Little Sammy was a born leader, and, some would argue, quite a snappy little dresser. He was easily the richest kid in school, and as such, found himself the object of scorn from some of the poorer kids. He sometimes shared his lunch money with others. However, he didn’t win any popularity contests with his entitled behavior and meddlesome ways. In fact, most of school hated his guts, but I don’t think he noticed.

Sam was arguably the toughest kid in school, but this would manifest itself in baffling ways. Sometimes, he’d rush to the aid of weaker kids. Other times, he’d be perceived as a bully. Once, a misfit student destroyed his science project. In retaliation, he shook down some of that kid’s friends, claiming to be looking for Wusses, Meatheads & Dorks (WMDs). In actuality, it is suspected that Sammy simply coveted those students’ precious Trapper Keepers.

Johnny Canuck (Canada)

Canada’s national personification (and Sam’s cousin) is Johnny Canuck. Originally a political cartoon, Johnny Canuck was often seen resisting the bullying of other nations. He was depicted as simple fellow in the garb of a farmer or lumberjack, and his influence on Canadian fashion can be seen even today.

As a child, Johnny Canuck was polite, well-groomed, and quiet. Other kids generally liked him, when they even noticed him. He wasn’t a star achiever at sports or academics but he had his moments. Truth is, he was kind of misunderstood. His fellow students often called him “Gordie” but he never let that bother him.

Young Johnny’s speech patterns made him a frequent butt of jokes. Yes, he pronounced diphthongs rather strangely, but everyone always understood what he was talking aboot. Johnny was also known for being a good drinker. Even in high school, he could always be seen with a beer. Incidentally, Sammy was also reputed to drink beer, but chemical analysis has proven that this was actually water.

Miguel Hidalgo (Mexico)

Mexico (also known as America’s beard) has a national symbol named < deep breath> Miguel Gregorio Antonio Ignacio Hidalgo y Costilla Gallaga Mondarte Villaseñor. And if you can read that entire name without hearing mariachi music in your brain, I salute you. He is commonly referred to as Miguel Hidalgo, probably because Mexicans are lazy. At least that’s the impression I get from hanging out in front of Home Depot.

Hidalgo was an actual historical figure; the chief leader of Mexico’s war of independence against Spain. But he also serves as a national figure akin to Uncle Sam. As a child, oh what a brat! He was always running around, fighting. His childhood, unsurprisingly, was marked with frequent bouts of diarrhea. For those reasons, he developed a reputation as a child to avoid.

Little Miguel, or Miguelito, didn’t seem to like his house very much. Some kids swore he slept in a dirt-floor shack, but this might have been mere playground gossip. In any case, there were several incidents in which he would follow Sam home, and try to sneak in through his back door. This happened so many times that Sam’s parents often argued whether it would be easier to allow him to come over or to put up a fence of some kind.

Juan Valdez (Columbia)

I always thought that Juan Valdez was just an advertising icon; no more significant than Tony the Tiger or the GEICO caveman. But he also exists as the embodiment of the typical Columbian coffee farmer. This overlap is kind of scary. Just think, instead of Uncle Sam, it might have been Toucan Sam, who wanted YOU for the U.S. Army. And then our soldiers would be too distracted by the delicious taste of Froot Loops to fight.

In any case Juan was, predictably, a jittery, nervous kid. While Johnny Canuck relaxed with a few stubby beers, Juan would work himself into a caffeine frenzy. It is suspected that this kind of addictive behavior paved the way for him to become involved with drugs. In fact, in high school, he became the school’s top supplier of nose candy.

As a toddler, Juan would never be seen without his favorite stuffed animal; a mule named Conchito. He and Conchito were the best of friends. There was something vaguely unsettling about the boy’s relationship with that mule. Years later, some videos would surface that would prove these suspicions were valid.

Marianne (France)

France’s national symbol is named Marianne; the so-called embodiment of liberty and reason. And it really shouldn’t surprise anyone that the French personification is a chick. As a young lass, Marianne was a sycophant, ready to suck up to the more popular kids at a moment’s notice, and gladly handing over her lunch money to anyone who threatened her.

For what it’s worth, Marianne was an excellent student. Math and science came easy, and in Home Economics, she really knew how to get her surrender flags their whitest. Despite this, she steadfastly refused to shave her armpits. Rumor has it that in her college years, she engaged in a bit of lesbian experimentation, even dating the Statue of Liberty for a brief time.

Deutscher Michel (Germany)

It is widely known that Germany’s national personification, Deutscher Michel, made unwanted advances on Marianne. Though she attempted “la résistance,” Michel had his way with her, storming through her virgin Bastille. Eventually, some of the other students, including Sam, came to her rescue, but after that she was seen as tainted goods.

As for Deutscher Michel, he was a bully of the worst sort. He ran roughshod over many of his classmates, picking fights and acting like he came from superior genetic stock. On more than one occasion, he tried to burn his schoolbooks. He gave moralistic excuses, but teachers knew the real reason: he just couldn’t get the hang of calculus.

Michel was a fat kid, and you don’t have to be an amateur psychologist to see that the double helpings of schnitzel affected his self-esteem. But, like all bullies, he was exposed as a snivelling coward when some other students (though mostly Sam) stood up to him. After that he concentrated mainly on bad industrial metal and chocolate.

John Bull (England)

The national personification of England is John Bull, a stout man in a top hat, tailcoat and a bulging Union Jack vest. In other words, if The Penguin ever decides to stop terrorizing Gotham City, he could find steady employment modelling for British motivational posters.

As a child, John Bull had many painful encounters with the dentist. His parents tried braces, retainers and surgery, but nothing was able to reverse his orthodontic misfortune. I guess you could say the fickle finger of fate dealt him a bad hand in the mouth department.

John was also known for bringing the worst, most most disgusting lunches to school. Atrocities like kippers, bangers and mash, and black pudding could often be found in his Doctor Who lunchbox. And items like spotted dick did nothing to help his popularity. Despite his idiosyncrasies, he remained close friends with Sammy andJohnny Canuck.

Colin Tampon and Helvetia (Switzerland)

The Swiss seem to have two distinct national personifications. One is named, and I kid you not, Colin Tampon. About him I shall say little, except… heh… tampon. What values do you cherish anyway, Switzerland? Absorbency? Freshness? Did “Hans Menstrual Pad” not fit on your coins?

Switzerland’s other, slightly less hilariously named icon is Helvetia, who is apparently not a mildly popular sans-serif font. No, she is a woman in a flowing gown, with braided hair, carrying a spear and shield emblazoned with the Swiss flag. Of course, that spear must have been some kind of art-deco piece, because the Swiss are less likely to fight than hippies and the Amish combined.

Whatever else you can say about young Helvetia, or “Hel-Raiser,” as she was nicknamed, she was a total babe. Every other national personification wanted to date her, and who could blame them? She had a killer body, and those braided pigtails? Let’s just say that the boys in her class wanted to try out the power steering. Deutscher Michel tried to get with her as well, but she was able to remain… neutral.

Eventually, all these kids graduated and moved on to better things. Some remain close friends, while others have lost contact entirely, or refuse to speak. Someday, there may be a great reunion, but for right now, they all do the best they can in their new roles, acknowledging their pasts with the occasional Facebook poke to one another.

Essential New Word of the Week:

coffeemorgue [kafi’morg] n

I never used to drink coffee, but a stressful job coupled with early-morning hours has resulted in a habitual need for the good stuff. Thankfully, my place of work provides free coffee. Unfortunately, this comes by way of a Flavia machine, a device so evil that it makes even the fax machine tremble in fear. You might notice the auditory similarity to the word “labia,” and truly, it’s hard to say which I’d rather be staring at when I arrive at 7:30 in the morning.

The Flavia operates by inserting a little packet of your favorite coffee or tea into a slot. The internal workings are a mystery, but the process is rumored to use hot water, gravity, and the magic of leprechauns. They make the packets in dozens of different coffee flavors, but all of them taste like slow-roasted vaginal discharge. Labia Machine indeed.

These little packets need to be stored somewhere, and that’s where the coffeemorgue comes in; a series of drawers, stacked vertically, that pull out to reveal a long line of coffee packets. And for the life of me, the whole get-up resembles a little morgue. Every time I pull open a drawer, I half-expect to find a miniature dead body. Since the coffee itself tastes like grim death anyhow, the term “coffeemorgue” fell into use right away. God, I wish my building had a Starbucks in it.