Tag Archives: kombinować

Scavenging or Extreme Recycling?

It seems like the concept of recycling is one that is yet to really take off in Poland. I’m not saying it’s not there – in fact I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see bottle banks, clothes bins and paper storage options in many housing estates and other osiedla – but rather that recycling seems to take place on the hush-hush. Just at the end of the road of the apartment block where I’m living, there are a set of recycling banks which I can’t remember ever seeing people using, but when I am dropping in bottles or other items, they seem to be regularly full of items to be taken away.

In fact, when considering the topic of rubbish and it’s disposal, it is something which is approached on the quiet, in general. Living in an old block, 10 stories high, the main rubbish disposal is an internal ‘piped’ system, where there is a small room close to the lifts on each floor with a pipe then allowing people to drop rubbish down to the large bins on the ground floor. It means that most people won’t need to leave their dressing gown and slippers in order to dispose of garbage. If you pick your time right, your neighbours would never see you throwing things out, and might assume you either never make a mess, or perhaps never clean your apartment.

When previously living in Ireland, it was easy to see that recycling is in-your-face, always available and unavoidable. The slogan “Reduce, Reuse and Recycle” is commonly advertised, on television, in newspapers and in other media, with support provided through local and city councils also pushing for householders to use multiple bins to ensure rubbish is split into such categories such as ‘food waste’, ‘paper’, ‘plastic’ and ‘other waste’. While it does ensure a strong positive focus, it also brings out the other end of responses, with some recycling snobs having panic attacks if other people around them are not splitting disposable items correctly. I’m not complaining about recycling, but it is somewhat refreshing that in Poland, it’s something which is done because people want it, rather than being told to do it, or it being in your face.

However, another factor which probably has an impact in not needing to focus on recycling is the kombinować culture. In terms of rubbish, it  seems to manifest itself in the form of scavenging. At least once a week, I have found someone looking through bins or rubbish piles, seeing if something is worth salvaging. In fact, in terms of the building rubbish disposal, it seems to be designed to allow for this as a possibility. In the area the bins are held in within our building, there is a shelf-like space along the side. It happens quite often that people will leave items there that they are no longer using or needing, and rather than simply dumping them, they are picked up by people looking to scavenge something.

You might think that it could be poor or destitute people who resort to trying to salvaging something from rubbish, but there is a surprising level of ‘professionalism’ involved too. I have seen guys with makeshift trollies, bicycles with boxes built-in, and even two guys working as a pair with a torch each, and each one would take on every second door in order to save time and move on quickly. This kind of ‘can-do’ approach sums up kombinować. I have even seen guys make a concerted effort to approach apartment blocks with specific timing associated. Once a month the management company with responsibility for the block will organise a pick-up of major or larger pieces of rubbish to be disposed of – such as furniture or so on. However, the scavengers will try to nip in, a day or a few hours in advance, and see what they can salvage for their own use. I have become accustomed to this now, so that even seeing someone looking in standard rubbish bins on the street (usually looking for tin cans) doesn’t cause any surprise at this stage.

So, recycling is not something I have a feeling is pushed here – but perhaps it’s for the better as, through various routes, people seem to push themselves, in a few different ways.

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Kaptain Kombinować strikes again

I like our landlord. He’s helpful, trustworthy, generous and friendly—he treats us more like guests than tenants. The only problem is that he has a secret identity: he is Kaptain Kombinować. When a problem needs solving and no one else can help, he swoops in dressed in his elastic-waisted sweat pants and inside-out Duran Duran T-shirt and wielding the mighty Hammer of Kombinować (except when he forgets it and has to borrow mine).

Kaptain K’s latest adventure began with a seemingly innocent visit by the electricity meter inspector. The evil inspector was not pleased. “This meter must go,” he insisted, “and in its place, one that isn’t quite so blatantly illegal must be installed,” he added. Kaptain K swung into action 48 hours later. Thankfully he was accompanied by his sidekick Presumably Fully Qualified Electrician Boy, otherwise I would now be writing this via a seance.

The new meter was successfully installed, in the sense that it didn’t immediately fall off the wall or cause any deaths. It was less successful at dealing with more complex challenges, such as allowing us to turn on anything electrical. The boy wonder performed certain technical adjustments with a bent screwdriver and all seemed well, until we tried the hot water. Everything in my flat is electric. The water heater switches on when you open the hot water tap. We opened the tap, and were immediately plunged into darkness. Further adjustments were made but the ensuing darkness was, if anything, more profound than the first time. This amusing game continued for some hours. I began to enumerate the benefits of cold showers for future reference.

For reasons known only to ancient and hidden intelligences greater than man’s, and the electricity company, I have a pre-pay electricity meter. This means I have to buy my electricity before I use it. It’s a bit of a hassle because it means visiting the electricity buying office every month or so, but I don’t mind too much because it’s amazing how much more conscientious about electricity use you become when you’re burning something you’ve already paid for. When you visit the electricity buying office they don’t just give you the electricity in a big bag, they give you a 20-digit code to punch into your meter. Exactly why it has to be 20 digits is another mystery for the ages. My credit card number is only 16-digits long, and it would take most of the computing power in the known universe to crack that.

Kaptain K called me from Kombinować central some hours later. Through his network of underworld crime-fighting chums he had learned that the only way to solve the problem was to hack the meter’s software by entering the code that would force it to allow the huge wattages drawn by rare and arcane appliances such as super hadron colliders and electric water heaters. I was skeptical. Military-grade encryption is not the kind of thing you can circumvent with a large hammer, no matter how hard you kombinować it. The afternoon passed in a blur of whispered phone calls consisting exclusively of 20-digit numbers and creative Polish swearing. I began to have imaginary Enigma machine flashbacks.

Kaptain K’s next plan was to install a night-storage water heater. This had the double advantage of bringing the hammer back into play and sidelining the crypto-mathematics. The Kaptain arrived in full regalia heaving a 20-kilo water heater up the stairs. It was surprisingly new-looking, despite the obvious signs of having recently been forcibly removed from a wall—chunks of masonry clinging pathetically to wires and water pipes.

Water storage heaters are large and heavy things. Fill them with 50 litres of water and they start to approach the mass and density of collapsed stars. One of Kaptain Kombinować’s superpowers is the ability to negate gravity by sheer will power alone, at least I assume this is the case since the selection of screws he had bought for attaching this 60 kilo lump to the wall would clearly have been about as effective as dry spit. I’ve never seen a screw inserted by hammer before. I’ve also never seen a 60-kilo water heater successfully hung on a plasterboard wall, and I think I never will. My nerves got the better of me. I insisted that luke-warm showers were bearable for the time being and suggested that the water heater be placed on a firm surface under United Nations supervision.

He’s out there somewhere, even now. Ready for the call. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find him, maybe you can hire Kaptain Kombinować.

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Polish TV ideas that can't fail

Polish TV isn’t known for its originality. In a world where the reality show is rapidly supplanting all others forms of entertainment every example of even this less than creatively taxing format on Polish TV appears to have been directly copied from elsewhere. What Poland needs are some homegrown program ideas. “What are Poles uniquely good at?” I asked myself. Before we are further assaulted by upcoming examples of the reality genre such as Dancing with Stars on Stilts or Underwater Celebrity Hairstyling I beg the Polish TV industry to consider the following ideas. I’m willing to accept a 50-50 revenue split.

Polish Roulette

The idea
Two Poles are seated on opposite sides of a table in a locked room. On the table is a loaded revolver. Each week the presenter starts a debate on an aspect of Polish grammar and then hastily leaves. Viewers are invited to place bets on how long it will take for one to blow the other one’s brains out.

The upside
Tension, violence, and a satisfying resolution are appreciated by TV audiences the world over. Poles will have the additional satisfaction of listening to a really good argument about transitive verbs while shouting at the television.

The downside
Episodes might be rather short. Perhaps it could be used as a filler between the news and the weather. Also, copycat arguments and killing sprees would probably sweep the nation each evening at around 7:30 but the death toll probably wouldn’t exceed that of the traditional holiday weekend road carnage, which doesn’t seem to bother anybody.


You’d better take back what you just said about third-person pronouns!

Mentioned in the News

The idea
Poles get a thrill whenever another Pole comes to the attention of somebody outside of Poland. The fact is invariably mentioned on the news. Ideally it should be for doing something noteworthy, but not necessarily. Stories such as “King of Swaziland once knew a Polish man – ‘He was an okay guy’ says king” or “Polish tourist in New York asked question on the street by CNN” are commonplace. This should be turned into a competitive activity. Two teams of Poles are sent abroad to try and get themselves mentioned in the news. The first team to get one of its members noticed wins the opportunity to star in a three hour miniseries about his or her life.

The upside
It would do wonders for Poland’s international image and Poles would have a guaranteed weekly glow of pride at having one of their own in the spotlight rather than having to wait around for the next volleyball tournament or ski jumping champion to turn up.

The downside
Of course, the easiest way to get on the news is to do something dangerous, criminal, or ill advised such as running naked down Fifth Avenue firing an assault rifle into the air. You’re not allowed to use that one.


Polish man asked “Where are you from” by UK passport control officer. “I was so proud” comments man.

The Kombinować Game

The idea
Poles are justifiably proud of their ability to circumvent ludicrous laws and to make do with what’s to hand. It’s a talent that had been developed over centuries of hard times and is usually summed up in the elusive Polish word “Kombinować.” In a way it’s the ultimate form of DIY. Unfortunately this often leads to Poles taking on jobs that they are dangerously underqualified to perform such as rewiring their house, or installing satellite dishes while suspended by the ankles over the side of uncle Bogdan’s balcony.

Working on the premiss that taking things to absurd extremes is invariably entertaining I envisage a show in which people from one profession are challenged to undertake a critical task in a completely different profession. Stefan, a florist from Stalowo Wola, is challenged to construct a gas-cooled nuclear reactor using only the contents of his cutlery draw. Gertruda from Zielona Gora is challenged to undertake a restructuring of national banking policy using only packet of cigarettes and an economics textbook in Urdu.

The upside
Putting the talents of a nation to use.

The downside
Nobody watches because it’s too much like real life.


Ideal for restructuring a nation’s economy or mending porcelain.

Taking Offense

The idea
Contestants are shown neutral statements about Poland and are invited to find reasons to take offense for no well-founded reason. For example:

Presenter: Tonight’s first statement is: “Poland is the 9th largest country in Europe”

Contestant 1: I resent the generalization that there are eight ‘larger’ nations in Europe. What you people seem to forget is the sacrifice made by the Polish airmen and the betrayal at Yalta!

Contestant 2: For 120 years Poles were suppressed and not allowed to swear in their own language! Also: Copernicus!

(Audience goes wild. Judges award a 9.6)


Poland. It’s a country. People live there. More than that I’m unwilling to say.

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Myth 22: The kombinować myth

I may have mentioned once or twice before that Poles are immensely proud of their language. To the casual observer it’s by no means obvious why this should be so; nobody else in the world speaks it and those hapless fools who try often end up with bent vocal apparatus. It turns out that these two facts are among the very reasons that Poles are proud of their language.

It’s only comparatively recently that Poles have found themselves free, independent and at liberty to argue volubly with each other about case endings and imperfective verbs. For centuries the Polish desire to engage in fist fights over points of grammar was severely hampered by occupiers who weren’t sure they wanted Poles speaking Polish at all, let alone arguing about it. There is evidence to suggest that the partition of Poland by neighboring powers was actually an attempt by Germany, Austria, and Russia to get some peace after having been kept awake for two centuries by an argument over irregularities in the verb być.* And when I say “there is evidence to suggest” I mean it wouldn’t surprise me.

There is one particular word in Polish around which the patriotic glow is particularly fierce. Engage a Polish person in discussion about their language for long enough and the following exchange will certainly take place.

Pole: Of course, the verb kombinować cannot be translated into any other language.

You: Oh really? What does it mean?

Pole: I cannot tell you because, you see, the verb kombinować cannot be translated into any other language.

You: I see.

Pole: Yes. I read it on the internet.

Unfortunately, like most myths about Poland, this turns out to be complete nonsense. In fact kombinować exists because Polish has a severe paucity of verbs referring to activities that have become popular since the 16th century. It’s a catch-all term for a range of activities involving the circumnavigation of laws, rules, or normal procedures. Where in English you might use botch, fiddle, swindle, cook, plot, rig, fix, doctor, hoax, con, bilk, dodge or even invent, in Polish you just use kombinować.

For example:

Me: Why are you swapping your number plate with your neighbor.

Pole: It’s a kind of kombinować, you wouldn’t understand.

Me: Okay. What are we having for lunch?

Pole: I don’t know, we will kombinować something.

Me: Sounds good. Do I have to eat number plates?

There’s a world of difference between a word that cannot be translated because it refers to a very specific object or set of circumstances and a word that refers to a set of activities that have numerous possible descriptions in other languages. Kombinować is in the second category. The truth is that kombinować is easily translated in context. It can’t be translated in general because it lacks clarity.

If you need me I’ll be hiding out in a very deep, very flameproof bunker.

*Być, in case you’ve never heard of it, is the Polish verb ‘to be’ and is pronounced exactly like bitch in English. This leads to endless amusement for English speakers since the popular phrase może być, meaning it can be or colloquially something like yes, that’s okay, is easily half-translated into English as it could be a bitch, which is true nine times out of ten.

For example:

“We have received your money but we can’t connect you to the internet until some time in 2015. Może być?”

“Yes. Może być”

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