Cult Comedies

The first time I saw a Polish comedy occurred years before I moved to Poland or even had met a Pole. When I was a teenager, the British TV station Channel 4 often showed some rather obscure movies. One of the films was Polish and led to the following discussion at my school between a group of teenage boys:

Boy1: Hey lads, there was a film on TV last called ‘Sex Mission’!

Boy2: Shit, I missed it.

Boy3: Don’t worry. I recorded it.

Boy2: Was there any sex in it?

Boy1: No sex, but lots of naked women.

Boy2: Can I borrow the tape?

The VHS tape was passed from boy to boy so we could all watch the film. There were even some heated arguments about who got to borrow it first. When he made the film, I doubt that Juliusz Machulski imagined his film would cause fights between teenage boys at the other end of Europe.

So what did a 14 year-old Scottish boy make of Seksmisja?

  • I remember finding it really funny, especially Jerzy Stuhr’s performance.
  • I was knowledgeable enough to get the joke about Marie Curie being a woman (a może Curie-Skłodowska też?).
  • I learned that the Polish word for ‘replay’ is the same as in English… only there are too few of them.
  • When Maks says kierunek Wschód, tam musi być jakaś cywilizajca (we go East, there must be some civilization that way), I thought it was a practical suggestion. Missing the irony completely, I knew that civilization started in Greece, and that it was east of Scotland. So, I thought that going in the direction of Plato, Aristotle and Homer seemed like a good call.

Years later when I moved to Poland and Poles urged me to watch a film called Seksmisja, I could tell them ‘actually, I saw that years ago!Of course, I would pretend that I watched it because I was an intelligent child who liked foreign films… and not because of its title!

Seksmisja is part of the Polish comedy pantheon. When I started living in Poland, there was a consistent pattern to the films that Poles recommended, and I was repeatedly encouraged to watch comedies from the 70s and 80s, particularly Rejs, Seksmisja and Miś.

But what is it like to watch these films through foreign eyes? Did I find them funny? Did I understand the satire? Did I even understand what’s going on?

First up, I decided to try the film that Poles pronounced ‘Race’. With such a title, I assumed it was a fast-paced action movie – the Polish version of ‘The Fast and Furious’ or something. But actually, it turned out that the title was Rejs meaning ‘cruise’, and the film wasn’t very fast, and it definitely wasn’t furious.


And I must admit that when I watched Rejs for the first time I understood it less than I understood Seksmisja as a 14-year old! While Miś and Seksmisja have a clear story that you can follow, the plot in Rejs is like the kiełbasa belonging to Jan Himilsbach’s character – it disappears in front of your eyes. Who are the passengers? Where are they going? Why do they have all those meetings? Why does the stowaway (played by Stanisław Tym) start organizing cultural events? Why all the gymnastics?

And the language is another challenge. It’s not the tempo of the speech – which is actually quite slow and clear – it’s that some of the vocabulary goes way over my head:

  • służbowo
  • kaowiec
  • tendencyjny

It’s by saying służbowo that Stanisław Tym is allowed onto the boat in the first place. I understood that it meant ‘on business’, but he didn’t look like he was there to repair the engine or check the navigation system, so what kind of business did he have? Another key moment is when someone writes głupi kaowiec in the ladies toilet. What’s a kaowiec? And why is it written in the ladies’ toilet? My first thought was that kaowiec was the person who made cocoa for the crew, but wouldn’t that be a kakaowiec?

When the engineer Mamoń says that a w filmie polskim, proszę pananic się nie dzieje. (in Polish films… nothing happens) he wasn’t even considering the perspective of a foreigner who is watching Rejs for the first time. Without knowing the language, the political situation in Poland at the time and key reference points in everyday culture, a foreigner misses so much that, indeed, on first viewing, it does seem like nothing is going on.

In Miś, on the other hand, there’s so much going on, but the challenge is to separate the satire from reality. Not having lived in Poland during the communist period, I didn’t know which scenes are based on real situations, which jokes are satire and which were invented for the film:

  • were the spoons in milk bars really chained to the tables?
  • in kiosks were the best-selling products shampoo, meat and aftershave (for drinking)?
  • did they really sing patriotic songs about Trasa Łazienkowska?
  • was kiełbasa a form of currency?
  • were passports handed over during a ceremony with music and dancing dwarves?

Another thing that confused me was the scene when trainer Jarząbek sings Łubu dubu, łubu dubu, niech żyje nam prezes naszego klubu. Niech żyje nam! I had no idea what was going on. Why was he singing into a tape recorder hidden in the wardrobe? What does łubu dubu mean? Is this satire or is the actor just a famous Polish rapper? It’s so easy to Miś-understand!

What I love in Bareja’s films are the huge number of supporting characters who have short vignettes – whether it’s drunks lying in the street who comment as the main characters pass by, or people who burst into kiosks carrying their mother on a stretcher – it gives his films the feel of comedy sketch show and reminds me of Monty Python movies. In Miś, for instance, the film repeatedly shows two cleaning ladies sitting in the Gents toilets at the Tęcza sports club. These women gossip about Ryszard’s situation and interact with a male employee who comes in to use the facilities, and thanks to this, the audience gets an update on the plot. I couldn’t help wondering whether they had a dramatic purpose as a ‘Greek chorus’ or were they included because there were always two cleaning ladies eating lunch and gossiping in the toilets during communist times?

One of the interesting things in Miś is how the UK is perceived. While it was portrayed as a safe place to keep your money, Ryszard does have to put up with terrible bureaucracy when he discovers there’s a strike at the bank. Yet the best part is Paluch’s description of his imagined trip to the UK – trudno wytrzymać człowieku…Taką rudą wódę piją, na myszach!… taki malutki wypijesz, dwa dni nieprzytomny jesteś (it’s hard to cope…they drink this red water, for/made of mice…drink a small one and you’re unconscious for two days).

Being Scottish, I was keen to hear his thoughts on whisky, but I couldn’t work out if he meant it was ‘for mice’ or ‘made from mice’. In either case, it’s ironic because my description of Poland would be similar: ‘it’s hard to cope…they drink this white water made from mice.. drink a small one and you’re unconscious for two days’.

In conclusion, I definitely think that these films should definitely come with some sort of rating. Some films are rated 18 or 15, others are PG (parental guidance), which means a child can watch but should have an adult with them. These Polish comedies should have a new category of rating:

  • PolGPolish Guidance – Foreigners can watch these films but should be accompanied by a Pole who will help to provide context and explain the jokes. If an unaccompanied foreigner tries to buy a ticket for one of these films, then they should be escorted out of the cinema by security.

Besides the guidance, there’s one other trick to really appreciating these films, and that’s to watch them at least three or four times. To quote Maks in Seksmisja, what you need more than anything is a… replay, replay!

So finally we come to the key question: did I find these films funny? Undoubtedly, yes! They are hilarious, and that is saying something when you consider that I only got 30% of the jokes during the first viewing!

Back when I was 14 years old, my first ever contact with Polish culture or the Polish language was watching Seksmisja with subtitles. If the film had been dull, if the jokes weren’t funny or the acting wooden, then I doubt I would have ended up living in Poland years later.

What bigger influence can a movie have than that?

Bullet Points

In Polish, złoczyńca means villain, złowrogi means sinister, so when I first came across the word złożony, I assumed it meant ‘evil wife’. As well as being surprised that Polish had a word for this, I also wondered whether there was a word for evil husband too – złomąż perhaps?

As it turned out, złożony doesn’t describe an evil wife at all, but actually means ‘complex’. Although I came across it by accident, I was surprised I hadn’t encountered it before. You see, for a foreigner, Poland can be a complex place – the language is difficult, the bureaucracy is Byzantine and it takes three days just to make good bigos. For most foreigners, solving every day problems isn’t so simple.

That said, when I heard about the blog by Katarzyna Tusk called Make Life Easier, I couldn’t help but laugh. Good luck, Kasia, I thought, making life easier is a very American ambition, and I’m not sure that Poles have the same aspiration. In fact, I actually think that Poles expect life to be complex.

I once heard about an American director who sent an email to a group of Polish developers – ‘I’ll be over in Poland next month. Please prepare a project plan to implement the new version of the software‘. The Poles got to work.

When the American arrived he was presented with a 250-page document outlining every detail of the project, its timelines, process maps and contingencies.

What’s this?‘ the American asked

It’s the project plan,’ the Poles replied proudly.

No, no, no‘ said the American. ‘I just need something short. Just the steps ABC and some deadlines. Can you prepare that for tomorrow?

The Poles worked all night and reduced the document down to most essential 50 pages and even then they had to cut out many things they considered crucial. The next day they handed the 50 pages to the American, saying ‘ we cut it down as much as could‘.

The American sighed and repeated his request. ‘No, guys. I don’t have time to go through all this. Just give me a one-page document with the key steps and completion dates. That’s all.’

The Poles were confused and returned to their desks, muttering ‘What’s this? A kindergarten?!

I can relate to that American because I had similar experiences while working as a trainer. Whenever I presented a technique or solution, experience taught me that most Poles would respond in one of three ways:

  • it can’t be that simple – some participants would dismiss the solution by pointing out that the approach was too simple and therefore insufficient.
  • what if…? – other participants would come up with hypothetical scenarios in which the technique would fail.
  • yes, but it won’t work in Poland – and finally, at least one participant would always point out that Poland is a special place where such techniques don’t work.

It happened so frequently that I began to question my own assumptions. Do Poles actually expect life to be complex? Do they trust simple solutions? If something is short and straightforward, then, to a Polish mind, does that mean it’s not an accurate reflection of reality?

In the UK and especially in the US, people love simple solutions. From 7 Habits of Highly Effective People to 10% Happier, we like books with a discrete number of ideas, straightforward categories and an ABC series of steps to reach success. There’s even a self-help book called The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results which you can also buy online in a summarized format if you don’t have time to read the whole book. Yes, that’s right. Some people believe that success can be reduced to one simple truth… yet they still don’t have time to read all the details!

Indeed, we Anglo-Saxons hate detail so much that we invented a way to kill it – bullet points. Bullet points are a way of saying ‘just forget about all the baggage. Give me the key points. All the rest is a waste of time.’ In fact, bullet points are what’s left once you’ve shot all the unnecessary information!


Maybe I should write a book called The One Anglo-Saxon Idea that Poles have a Problem with. To give you a summarised version (in case you don’t have time to read the whole text), it would present the hypothesis that Brits and Americans think it’s possible to apply the same solution in multiple contexts, while Poles believe that every context is different and requires a separate strategy.

And the most different, the most special context is… Polish reality… which is an expression I’ve heard countless times. Yes, but it wouldn’t work in Polish reality. Why not? Because it’s just too complex!

So, to appeal to Poles, I get the impression that the publishers would need to translate the title of Steven Covey’s book from 7 Habits of Highly Effective People to 7 Habits, 14 Problems with those Habits and 21 Exceptions to the Rules of Highly Effective People.

And finally, we come to the Polish language, where there’s nothing simpler than food – bułka z masłem, kaszka z mlekiem (easypeasy) – I get the impression that you could combine any food with another food and a Pole would understand that you’re talking about something straightforward – nie martw się, to jajko z majonezem.

However, my favourite illustration of all this is the expression prosty jak budowa cepa (as simple as the construction of a flail). It’s very ironic that the Polish expression to describe something that is uncomplicated… talks about something I’ve never seen and never used. I don’t know what a flail looks like, I don’t know how to build one, and honestly, I don’t even know what it’s used for.

So, to me, all this Polish complexity is prosty jak budowa cepa… literally!

How to Catch a Spy

In war films and novels, spies often try to learn a foreign language so perfectly that they can pretend to be a regular citizen in that country. However, despite years of intensive training, learning the minutiae of the target culture, one little slip up is enough to reveal the spy’s secret identity. For instance, in Tarantino’s film Inglorious Basterds, a British spy in Germany speaks perfect German and almost fools a member of the Gestapo. However, when ordering a round of drinks, he shows the number three by holding up three fingers rather than two fingers and one thumb. This little piece of British body language gives him away and the Germans arrest him immediately.

So I began to wonder what little aspects of Polish language and culture would a spy have to learn in order to pass him or herself off as a Pole? Alternatively, what little aspects of Polish society might be potential traps for our spy, causing him or her to slip up and reveal that they are not actually Polish?

Landing in Poland

Our spy needs to stay alert as soon as the plane approaches Poland. While he might be worried about border control, his problems start a little earlier than this. When the plane touches down safely, some Poles begin to clap. I’ve never known why they do this. Is because they are relieved that they didn’t crash, because they are so thrilled to be on Polish soil, or are they giving the pilot a round of applause for flying well? I’ve no idea, but whatever it is, to pass himself off as Polish, our spy has two choices – (1) applaud and thereby pretend to be a Pole from an older generation who doesn’t have much experience of flying, or (2) look embarrassed, thereby pretending to be a younger Pole with more flying experience. If he looks surprised, then it’s obvious that he’s not Polish.

The Napkin Test

The next place where our spy needs to be alert is in a Polish milk bar. His cultural training will hopefully have taught him that a milk bar doesn’t sell milk and it’s not a bar, but it’s when he sits down that issues might arise. In Polish bars there are usually napkins on each table. These thin squares of paper are arranged in a triangular fan and held in a small stand. The challenge is to take one without pulling out the rest. I’m amazed by Poles who, without even looking, gracefully pluck out a napkin from the centre while carrying out a conversation. I’ve been in Poland for years, but I still haven’t mastered this, and have to lift out all the napkins, unfold the bundle, remove one, fold them and put them back in the stand. I can imagine the sweat on our spy’s brow as he reaches for the napkins, knowing that if he pulls the wrong one, all of them will spill out and his identity will be revealed to the entire milk bar.


Likewise, he needs to be careful with the salt and pepper pots. Unlike in the UK, where a pot with one hole contains salt and a pot with three holes contains pepper, it’s the other way around in Poland. If he ends up shaking pepper onto his chips, then he’s a dead man.

Suppressing British Impulses

It won’t be easy, but our spy will need to suppress intense British impulses during his stay in Poland. This will be especially difficult concerning tea. Firstly, he needs to break the mental association between tea and time. In Poland, you can drink tea whenever you want and there’s no specific tea time in the late afternoon when you must take a break for tea. Secondly, if he really has to add milk to his tea, then he mustn’t take offense if the waiter brings warm milk. No matter how ghastly it is to put warm milk in tea, he’ll just have to pretend to enjoy it.


No matter how much prior training he gets, it’s still going to be a challenge to queue like a Pole. The first thing he needs to know is when not to queue. If he just has a question, then he shouldn’t wait in line, but instead barge straight to the counter, interrupt whoever is being served and loudly ask his question. Politely waiting in line to ask a question is a dead giveaway that he’s a Brit.

Body language is another potential telltale sign that he’s a spy. A true Pole looks a little anxious when queuing as if someone is suddenly going to jump ahead of them. This is especially important if you’re standing in a line. Here you should constantly encroach into the personal space of the person ahead of you. If this results in physical contact, whatever you do, don’t apologise. That would be a clear signal that you’re British.


Of course, our spy needs to get his clothes right if he’s going to blend in effectively. One thing he needs to bear in mind is the amount of clothing. If he wants to look Polish, especially in winter, then he needs to wear as least twice as many items of clothing as he would in the UK.

For Poles this attachment to multiple layers starts in childhood. One thing that did surprise me about the Polish winter was the amount of clothes Polish children are forced to wear. This is fine if it’s minus ten, but if it’s plus five degrees, do they need to be dressed like an arctic explorer? One shock that most Poles get in the UK is when they see young children wearing shorts, t-shirts and flip-flops… in winter. On the whole, this difference is harder for a Polish spy in the UK than a British one in Poland.

Public Meetings

A spy needs to meet other operatives and exchange messages in public places. What potential issues could arise? First of all, there’s time-keeping. If you agree to meet your Polish agents on a park bench, don’t give them up for dead if they are 10 minutes late. In Poland, 3 o’clock lasts from 3.00-3.15, so it’s possible to be 15 minutes late and still be on time.

The next question is what to carry with you so that you look normal. Poles buy huge quantities of flowers, so if you’re carrying a bunch of flowers, any one observing you will assume you’re on your way to someone’s house, a church or a grave. But our spy will need to be careful – Poles always buy an odd number of flowers, so if he’s carrying a dozen red roses, then they’ll be for his own grave!

Our spy should also bear in mind that Poles have a long history with clandestine and conspiratorial activity, so don’t try to outsmart them. Fortunately, for our spy, firanki (net curtains) never went out of fashion in Poland, so he can simply rent an apartment opposite some key location and do all the spying he wants from the window!

Referring to Oneself

James Bond doesn’t go undercover, he’s not that type of spy. However, his way of introducing himself would actually lend itself to being an effective agent in Poland. ‘Bond, James Bond‘ mirrors the way a Pole will often say ‘Kowalski, Jacek‘ when introducing himself in a formal situation as opposed to the British way of saying the first name followed by the last name.

Another potential pitfall when referring to yourself is not to overuse the word Ja. Hopefully, our spy has paid attention during language lessons and learned that Poles incorporate the pronoun into the verb and just say jestem or mam instead of ja jestem, ja mam etc.

Personally, I’d fail this particularly test as I’m guilty of saying ja too often. My wife laughs every time I explain away my poor Polish by saying ja-aaaaa jestem Szkotem. As well as sounding like Sean Connery when I elongate the ja-aaaaa, it gives away my foreignness both in form and content.

The Departure Gate

In the unlikely event that our spy survives all of the potential pitfalls mentioned above, there’s one last test before he can board a flight to safety.

In an airport, just before a flight is called, you can tell which passengers are Polish and which are not just by looking. How? Well, all the non-Poles will be sitting, waiting for an announcement that the plane is ready for boarding. All the Poles, however, will already be standing in a queue, waiting to board. Our spy, to avoid being caught, will need to stay alert. As soon as the first Pole decides that it’s time to board, he needs to hurry to the boarding game and join the emerging queue with the other Poles. Then, and only then, might he complete his mission successfully.

The Ham Trap

The problem isn’t that a brain learns too slowly. Problems occur when it learns too fast. Instead of methodically and rationally working out what a word means, sometimes my brain races towards some wildly inaccurate conclusions.

It’s as if my brain were a wild horse, and there are times when I wish I could pull back on the reins and say ‘whoa brain…slow down…let’s get there one step at a time‘.

A friend, Jacek, and I were running for a bus, frantically waving to the driver that we wanted to board. Just as we reached the back door, it slammed shut and the bus began to pull out. When Jacek banged his fist on the bus door and said ale chamstwo, the school of life presented me with a language learning opportunity.

I knew that -stwo meant something like -ness in English, a suffix that turns an adjective into a noun. So hearing chamstwo, I immediately chopped the word into two halves: cham and -stwo. Despite knowing it was nonsense, I couldn’t stop my mind from leaping to the conclusion that I had just heard the English word ‘ham’ in its Polish form.

Ham-stwo…hamness…What could that mean?

Normally, when experience gives you such a learning opportunity, it’s best to pay attention to the context. What happened? Who said what to whom? What was their motivation and what was the impact of their words? Acting like a detective, a clever language learner should be able to deduce what the phrase means, memorize it and store it until they find themselves in a similar situation.

I, on the other hand, couldn’t stop thinking about pork!


I did notice that Jacek was either criticising the bus driver’s behaviour or cursing our bad luck. So, despite knowing it was a waste of time, I searched for English idioms connected to meat that could also describe people or luck:

  • ham: if someone is ham in English, it means they try to show off a talent that they don’t really have. Did Jacek mean that the bus driver was an unskillful show-off?
  • pig: in English, pig is a insult, maybe in Polish they use the meat as an insult instead of the animal?
  • lean: the word lean describes a slim person, as well as a thin slice of meat. Perhaps it means our luck is as lean as a slice of ham?
  • thick as mince / mutton: both these comparatives mean stupid. This could definitely apply to the bus driver!

But none of these seemed to fit the context.

Because we were running late for a match, it wasn’t a good moment to stop Jacek and ask some probing questions on the meaning and usage of the expression ale chamstwo. In any case, he didn’t look in the mood for a linguistic discussion. So I decided to ask him later.

The next day, recalling the incident, I searched my Polish-English dictionary for the word hamstwo, but it wasn’t there. Then I remembered that Poles spell ‘h’ as ‘ch’ or ‘cz’. And there is was…chamstwo…translated as ‘boorishness’, while the adjective chamski was translated as ‘boorish’, and cham as boor. These words are rarely used in English and rather old-fashioned. I don’t think I’ve ever used the word ‘boorish’ in my life.

Leaping to the wrong conclusion again, my brain even suggested, ‘maybe Jacek speaks old-fashioned Polish? He must have picked up the expression from his grandfather’.

But I kept hearing the word chamstwo, chamski or cham…in different situations…and from many different people. And it was rarely used lightly – few people said trochę cham.

Why is there so much boorishness in Poland?, I wondered. If the word boor isn’t used in the UK anymore, does it means that our society has successfully eliminated boorishness?

I decided to take a more methodical approach to learning this piece of vocabulary, and started to ask around. When answering, most Poles responded by giving personal examples and got visibly upset while they were sharing their anecdotes. Indeed, most of them didn’t want to discuss the word chamstwo in much detail, and changed the subject as quickly as possible.

Oh, this question touches a nerve, I thought. The word boorish doesn’t elicit any emotions in a British person, but talking about the word chamstwo definitely make Poles feel awful!

And in this way, I learned that chamstwo describes behaviour that is rude or offensive, and that the word was once used to refer to peasants.

And of course, we haven’t eliminated boorishness in the UK, in fact, I’d say it’s back in fashion. There’s a new British English word which would be a more accurate translation of cham and actually looks very similar. That word is ‘chav’, but it didn’t appear in dictionaries until 1998. The Oxford English dictionary defines it meaning as ‘a young, working-class person who displays loutish behaviour’ so it’s similar to cham in that its definition relates to rude behaviour and social status.

So, for me, learning the word chamstwo was a challenge. A challenge in not jumping to wrong conclusions:

  • it’s not related to pork
  • it’s not old-fashioned
  • and we haven’t eliminated it in the UK, in fact, we’re creating new words for it.

Whoa brain!

Combine Harvester

When you’re learning a foreign language, you tend to learn one word or expression at a time. There are some words that you can learn in a few minutes, some require repetition over a few days, and some words take years to learn.

That’s how it was with kombinować. It took me years to fully understand what it meant.

At first, I thought it was a no-brainer. Yep, that’ll be the Polish version of ‘to combine’. Easy-peasy.

But in practice, no one ever said what two things were being combined. They just said on coś kombinuje, and in my head I was thinking combine what with what? As a beginner, it’s rude to correct a native-speaker of a language, but I felt like correcting Poles by asking ‘doesn’t that verb need an object, well actually, at least two objects?

I bit my tongue and decided to do some research instead. My pocket dictionary translated kombinować as ‘to wangle’. I hate it when you check the meaning of a word, but you don’t understand the translation into your own language. Wangle, what does wangle mean? No one ever wangles where I come from!

Fortunately, the dictionary also translated the expression on coś kombinuje as ‘he’s up to something’. Okay, I thought, so it’s negative and means that someone is trying to hide their true intentions in order to achieve something.

But, one day when we were driving around looking for a parking space, a friend said ‘coś wykombinujemy‘ and parked the car on the pavement between a lamp post and a bus stop. He wasn’t suggesting we enter into a conspiracy or try to hide anything. To my ears, it sounded like he was saying ‘let’s try something creative’. So kombinować had a positive meaning as well, especially if you add wy- at the beginning.

Just when I thought I was getting to grips with kombinować, next up was kombinator. Oh great, not only do I need to work out what the verb means, there’s a noun as well!

To foreign ears, kombinator sounds like a profession in the engineering sector. There’s a branch of mathematics called ‘combinatorial analysis’, and I imagined some Wyższa Szkoła Kombinowania where you study for years to master the science behind kombinowanie.

As far as I could tell, kombinować can be positive or negative depending on the context, but it seemed that calling someone a kombinator was always derogatory. If you took the kombinowanie too far, then you crossed a line and became a kombinator. But what was the deciding factor? Does a kombinator need to break a law, infringe on others’ interests, or simply do it too frequently?

And how to translate kombinator? The best English equivalent is wheeler-dealer from the idiomatic expression to ‘wheel and deal’. Most people associate this with selling used cars, a business activity that certainly offers plenty of scope for kombinowanie.

The more I encountered this word, the broader its meaning became. The more dictionaries I checked, the more possible translations – be up to no good, deceive, contrive, scheme, figure something out, work an angle, fiddle, hustle, wheel and deal, get creative, juggle, try something, conspire, live on one’s wits! And every dictionary gives a different set of translations – I must admit that I’ve never seen such variation in the translation of a single verb. The publishers of English-Polish dictionaries should hold a conference just to agree one set of possible translations…and see if they can narrow it down to four or five English options!

I began to realise that kombinowanie is no ordinary word describing an ordinary activity. It’s part of something deeper, more significant to Polish culture. It’s something of a skill – a problem-solving ability that Poles are particularly good at. The only way to really understand what kombinować means is to observe Poles in action over a number of years, example after example, context after context.

And that’s what I did.

One of my favourite examples of kombinowanie that I’ve observed concerns a removal company. I once employed a guy to move some furniture and actually traveled with him from city to city. He was bald, unshaven and permanently wore a bluetooth headset in each ear which made him look like a pirate. He had two mobile phones and explained that he had two sim cards in each one. He advertised as four different removal firms with four different numbers. When a client called and asked for a price, he would quote a high figure. When the client called him again, thinking they were calling a different firm, he would change his voice and quote an even higher figure. The client, assuming they had shopped around and found the best price, would call back and hire the first firm.



There’s a lot of creativity in kombinowanie. If there were Oscars for the best global examples, then Poles would win every year!

Of course, in this Oscar category, Poles would have one huge, unfair advantage – only they’d know what the word kombinować actually means!

Can you Trust the Angols?

I was once on an intercity bus sitting behind two Polish men. One of them was talking on his mobile phone, loudly discussing a business deal in English.

At the end of the conversation, he said have a nice day and hung up, switched to Polish and started talking to his companion. He described the deal and how much he would earn, and sounded very pleased with the arrangement. But his companion, who was older…and apparently wiser, wasn’t convinced. He turned to his companion and said in a calm, quiet voice:

‘Just remember… the Angol is not your friend!’

I was shocked. It was a generalization. He meant all Angols.

Being an Angol* myself, I don’t believe that British people are faultless, but on the whole, I think we’re trustworthy.

Aren’t we?

So why did this Pole say ‘remember, the Angol is not your friend’? Why did lean forward as if he was giving his companion a message that would protect him? Why did he use a hushed tone of voice that suggested he was talking about a dangerous alien race? Why would he suggest that Angols only pretend to be your friend?

Well, there is one thing about British people that doesn’t inspire trust – our communication style.

While Poles speak directly and express their opinions honestly, Brits speak very indirectly and hide their opinions in vague language. From experience I know that this can be confusing and frustrating for Poles.

I remember a Polish colleague once asked me ‘what does it mean when a British person says ‘I’m not impressed’? If you could put it on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 meaning it’s awful and 10 meaning it’s fantastic. Would it be a 7 or a 2?’

Oh, that would be a 2’ I told him. ‘It’s like saying that something is ‘very bad’.

Why didn’t he just say that!’ he replied, clearly frustrated.

There are numerous articles translating expressions used by British people into normal language. For instance, when a British person says I agree up to a point, it actually means that they disagree with you. Or when they say that something could be better, it means that it’s very poor. And if you cook a meal and serve it to a British person who says that it tastes interesting…just throw away that recipe!


In his book The Right Mind*², the psychologist Robert Orstein tells a story of an American businessman visiting the UK. The businessman had just given a presentation to a group of British directors. After the presentation, one of the British directors stood up and said the following:

‘I’m not sure I, or anyone here, will agree completely with absolutely everything the speaker has said, but we thank him for his trouble in coming here to attempt to make a difficult idea possibly more clear to us.’

The Brits in the audience were shocked, but the American kept smiling. He didn’t get it.

In British English, the above sentence basically means ‘everything this guy said is bullshit.’ But British people rarely give feedback in such direct language. Foreigners (Americans included) find it very difficult to understand a British person when they are giving feedback in such an indirect style.

Growing up in the UK, you just naturally learn to communicate this way. It wasn’t until I lived abroad that I realised how confusing this can be.

So, can you trust the Angols? Well, I have to admit that the British style of giving feedback raises this very question. If we don’t say what we mean…explicitly and honestly…then how can you trust us? Why wouldn’t you believe that we’re trying to deceive you?

To defend the Angols, I’d like to point out that we’re just trying to be polite. In the UK it’s considered rude to express your opinions too directly.

So if an Angol doesn’t share his or her opinions very directly…if they confuse you with very opaque feedback…don’t worry, he or she is just trying to be polite

…because they do want to be your friend!


*I am from Scotland, but understand that the Polish term Angol refers to people from Britain and not just England.

*²p102, The Right Mind: Making Sense of the Hemispheres, Robert Ornstein, Hardcore Brace & Company 1997

Sign Language

I was once sitting at a hot desk next to a door that was the exit/entrance to a large open-space office. On that particular day, the door was out of order. A sign saying awaria/out of order was clearly visible in the middle of the door. I spent eight hours sitting there and noted a curious cultural difference.

The ‘foreigners’, i.e. Brits, Americans and other nationalities that approached the door, stopped around two metres away when they saw the sign, turned and walked around the open space to the next door.

The Poles approached the door, paused two metres away when they saw the sign, and then marched up to the door and turned the door handle. Discovering that the door was indeed out of order, they walked around the open space to the next door.

I asked a guy I knew why he had tried the door handle.

Maybe they repaired the door and forgot to take the sign down,’ he replied.

I didn’t think of that.’

Or maybe the carpet is getting worn and they want us to use the other door.

You think?

This is Poland,’ he explained, ‘just because they put up a sign saying ‘awaria’ doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s out of order.’

And that’s just it.

A dictionary can give you the definition of a word… but experience tells you what it means to people!


And that experience was a perfect illustration of Poles’ attitude towards authorities…don’t trust everything they tell you…especially not at first. If the building administrator puts up a sign saying that a door is out of order, then it’s worth verifying that fact yourself. They might have other motives!

And this is especially true in public administration. In a typical urząd you need to fight to get any information at all, and when you do get some answers, one clerk will tell you one thing, while another clerk will tell you something completely different. To achieve your goal, you need to gather information, but the quality of information you get from authorities in Poland is often poor and contradictory. It’s no wonder that Poles want to check for themselves!

So forget the dictionary definition, if I see an awaria sign on a lift, door or ticket machine, I don’t walk away immediately.

In Poland it’s always worth checking to see if the door is working just fine. You might just get where you’re going.

Begging for Bilets

I remember the first time I tried to buy a ticket for public transport in Poland. I knew that you got them from those Ruch kiosks, and I knew what to say – I had the expression ‘bilet poproszę‘ (one ticket please) written on a scrap of paper in my pocket. There was a couple of minutes until the next bus. All set. What could possibly go wrong?

I approached the kiosk and the first thing I noticed was that the only opening was a small window at waist height. To communicate with the person inside, I had to bend forwards and turn my head sideways. Immediately I was in a submissive position, bent over like a servant as if I were begging at the feet of a king.

Through the small window, I could see someone inside. Although I couldn’t see his face, I could see the torso and hands of a man, who was sitting next to a heater and reading a magazine. It felt like I was interrupting.


I cleared my throat and reading from my scrap of paper, I said ‘bilet poproszę

Instantly, the man inside the kiosk said ‘nie ma‘.

It was at this moment that I froze.

Coming from the UK, I am used to a high-level of politeness in customer service. If something is not available, then the shop assistant will say something like ‘sorry we don’t have any tickets, but if you go 100 yards down the street, you can find a shop that sells them.’ In this way, even if a shop assistant can’t help you, they at least pretend to.

What’s more, the shop assistant will usually respond by apologising and give the impression of regretting the fact that they can’t provide a customer with what they need. In the tone of their voice, you’ll also be able to hear a sense of empathy as if they were stepping into your shoes and feeling the same disappointment as the customer.

So I paused…waiting for the man in the kiosk to let me know where else I could get a ticket or when they would be back in stock. Anything to help me on my way.

But the guy in the kiosk said nothing…he just continued reading the magazine.

And the way he had said ‘nie ma‘… responding even before I’d finished saying ‘poproszę’. His response lasted a fraction of a second and it didn’t seem that he was going to put any more effort into the interaction. There was no empathy in his tone, no sense of regret. It was a simple statement of fact – there weren’t any tickets.

Yet my brain was so used to a familiar cultural pattern that I didn’t know what to do when the pattern was broken. I was stuck for a moment in a state of disbelief.

The bus arrived, some passengers got out, other got on. The bus departed.

But I was still at the kiosk, frozen in a bent-over position …slowly realising that I wasn’t going to get an apology, empathy, advice….and definitely not a ticket.


  • I laughed when I later found out that ‘Ruch‘ means ‘movement‘…I associated it with being stuck and going nowhere.
  • I once wondered what it would be like if Ruch ran a project to train kiosk workers in customer service. Would the service be transformed? Probably not. Instead of a two-word reply, he’d just try and sell me stuff I didn’t need…only more politely.
  • Actually, a kiosk is a good place for a beginner to test their language skills in real world. You get a short, clear response to your questions – kiosk workers don’t tend to bamboozle you with long sentences or complex expressions.
  • Ruch has modernised their kiosks and in the most modern ones you can actually make eye contact with the person inside…without bending over. Opposite my apartment we even have a Ruchsalon handlowy‘…that’s what they call a kiosk you can walk three paces into.
  • Since that day I’ve had quite a few experiences in Poland in which the level of customer service I received didn’t live up to my expectations. I must say that I prefer the British style of interacting with customers. Customer service in the UK is polite and empathetic – very much focused on the relationship with the customer…but sometimes it’s also false. ‘Sorry, we don’t have any tickets, maybe if you try up the street?,’ is a just a polite way of saying ‘no, go somewhere else‘.
  • I hear lots of complaints about the quality of customer service in Poland, but there is one thing about it that I do appreciate…it’s honest. If there aren’t any tickets, then they’ll tell you that. No sugarcoating, no sales pitch, no pretense.

Nie ma.

The Princess and the Spider

Once when I was walking with a friend in Kraków, we climbed up Kopiec Kościuszki. From the top we could see Kopiec Piłsudskiego.

‘Does everyone who fought for Polish freedom get their own mound?’ I asked.

Almost,’ he laughed. ‘Kościuszko, Piłsudski, Wanda.’


Yes, Wanda who didn’t want to marry the German.’


You know, she jumped into the river instead of marrying a German prince.’ my friend explained.

I had read some Polish history, so I knew who Kościuszko and Piłsudski were, but I had never heard of Wanda before. And when I heard about the legend…the Polish princess, the bad German, the heroic sacrifice…it reminded me of a Scottish legend.

The Scottish king, Robert the Bruce, and his army were defeated by the English. He hid in a cave, where he watched a spider trying to spin a web. Time after time, the spider would fall from the cave ceiling to the floor, only to crawl back up the cave wall and start again. This inspired Robert not to give up. He formed another army, defeated the English at Bannockburn and Scotland was an independent country for nearly 400 years thereafter. The legend teaches Scottish children that ‘if at first you don’t succeed, then ‘try, try again.’

Poles aren’t familiar with the legend of Robert the Bruce, but they all know the film Braveheart. I remember the first time I heard the film’s title in Polish:

Jacek: Do you like Fighting Heart?

Me: Fighting Heart? Is it a card game?

Jacek: No, the Scottish film. It won an Oscar. Freedoooom, you know?

Me: Oh, Braveheart.

Jacek: Yes!

Me: What’s it called in Polish?

Jacek: Waleczne Serce. It means Fighting Heart.

My friend, Jacek, confused the translation of waleczne (brave) with walczące (fighting), and his confusion make me realise what a silly title the film actually has in English.

Poles seem to love the film – there’s definitely some similarity between Scots fighting for their freedom from a dominant neighbour and Poles fighting for their freedom from dominant neighbours. And I must admit that the film is great PR for Scots. It portrays us as brave, passionate and romantic. I’ll take that.

Just like Wanda, the hero in the film, William Wallace, makes a heroic sacrifice and dies for the cause of freedom. Yet the film Braveheart was produced in Hollywood and, while it’s based on historic people and events, a lot of story was adapted or invented to make the film more appealing. The film is legend, not history.

So I’m waiting for a Hollywood version of the Wanda legend. Maybe it could be called ‘Braveheart 2‘ and Mel Gibson could direct it? I’d cast Emilia Clarke as Wanda (same costume as in GoT), Zac Efron as the German prince, and Sean Connery as king Krak. The soundtrack would be performed by Zakopower. Since historical facts can be ignored, we can assume that the Wawel dragon was still alive at this time and plays a prominent role.

The original Braveheart won five Oscars, so I’d expect this version to win even more.


In Braveheart, William Wallace shouts ‘freedom’ just before he is executed by English soldiers, and if Hollywood made a version of the Wanda legend, I’m sure the final scene would show something similar – Wanda jumping into the air above the Vistula river and shouting ‘freedom‘ in English at the top of her voice.

Thankfully times have changed. When I, a foreigner, asked for her hand in marriage, my Polish wife didn’t even consider jumping into the Vistula river…well, if she did, she didn’t mention it.

Key Polish Expressions#1 – The Words you Hear Everywhere

I heard about a British guy who didn’t speak nor understand Polish, but he’d lived in Poland for a while and heard the language being spoken a lot. It was all meaningless communication to him, except that there was one word that he heard over and over. He heard it on buses and trams, he heard mothers saying it to their children, he heard owners shouting it at their dogs, he heard it from politicians on TV and from loudspeakers outside churches. But he didn’t know what it meant. He came to the conclusion that it must be the most important word in Polish society, otherwise they wouldn’t repeat it all the time.

But what was it?

What did it mean?

And why was it so common?

The word was ‘Nie wolno…‘.

And if you listen carefully, you can hear it all the time.

Here’s another expression you hear a lot:

If you listen to Polish politicians on the TV or radio, there’s one expression that they use over and over. No matter which subject they’re discussing – the EU, the budget, the constitution – they introduce their opinion by saying:

Nie może być tak, że…‘ (We can’t accept that…)

nie moze byc tak ze

Basically, they’re saying that whatever situation exists right now, it can’t continue like this. They rarely offer an alternative, but they are good at pointing out exactly what ‘nie może być‘.

The most common sign in Poland has the word ‘zakaz‘ (it’s forbidden to…) written in big capital letters across the top, followed by whatever activity is forbidden – parking, playing ball games, feeding the birds. Even if you don’t understand Polish, it’s very obvious what ‘zakaz‘ means – the sign is usually bright red and often there’s a image showing what’s forbidden.

Curiously, despite the popularity of these expressions, they don’t work.

  • Nie wolno – this is used when someone (often a child) is already doing what’s forbidden. Saying ‘nie wolno‘ won’t stop them, at best it will lead to the response ‘why not?’
  • Nie może być tak, że – whatever subject is being discussed, it will become more popular because now more people know about it.
  • Zakaz – people are already doing this activity in this place – that’s why it was necessary to put up the sign in the first place. Adding the sign just gives people a reminder that this is a good place to park, play ball games, swim etc.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned living in Poland, it’s that despite all these reminders about what people can’t or shouldn’t do, Poles will do it anyway!

So that British guy who heard ‘nie wolno‘ everywhere but didn’t understand what it meant, well, it turns out that he was paying more attention to the expression that most Poles do!


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