Wykombinować is one of the key terms of Polish identity. It allows us to go through tough times and still manage life. It means coming up with something (a solution, an idea) in a smart, informal, improvised way, not following the rules. It suggests the situation may have seemed hopeless, but someone persevered and managed to find a solution. You can wykombinować some money, a lunch, something, anything; but you can also wykombinovać how to help, or which way to go.
The root verb is kombinować –meaning not »to combine,« but rather to contrive, as well as to be up to no good, to cheat, to flout the rules. This can sometimes be pejorative, but is often about bypassing the system to think out of the box. If you succeed – you may wykombinować (come up with) something, outsmarting the encountered reality.
Wykombinowaćis less about linguistics and more about Polish cultural heritage. It is born out of Polish history and the way we have managed to cope with apparently insurmountable obstacles. It’s a survival strategy that became a powerful intellectual and effective weapon we use every day. Take life under the so-called »socialist« regime. How do you find food for your family if the store shelves are literally empty? You have to wykombinovać something. Go to another store, wait in a queue with the hope of something popping up, bribe someone. My relatives would sometimes go from Warsaw to the village their family was from to buy an entire pig. All they needed to do, then, was to wykombinovać how to transport it back home in their tiny Fiat 126p, packed with family members. This spirit of peculiar entrepreneurship didn’t fade after 1989. If anything, it gained new flavors – from illegal businesses to an ever-surprising spirit of independence.
One possible translation to English would be »to figure out.« But for heaven’s sake, to figure out has this moving out of a figure, like solving a riddle – from a Polish perspective figuring out sounds somewhat naïve, as if life were a mathematical equation. Like you need to be the good student who finds the correct answer. Wykombinować, on the other hand, doesn’t aim for perfection or an objective truth. Rather, it accepts the limited horizon we function within. There may or may not be a final truth. What we need is to come up with strategies of survival and new, creative ways of functioning in this world. Improvise, rethink, persevere, prove them wrong, find a solution, make it work. Somehow.
It does feel like magic. Or alchemy. It’s a post-socialist alchemy – you combine things, thoughts, bits and pieces of ideas, you stare into the almost-nothing you have inherited from reality, and somehow you arrive at something which works. It shouldn’t have: there was really not enough in the pot, and yet, magically, the solution is here. The strange ingredients you used, the surprising combinations, only make sense once the result appears in hindsight. It was impossible to plan. To be clear – there is nothing esoteric about it. Your knowledge and preparation helped, but you needed to be present here and now, to pierce, to puncture the opaque horizon of possibilities.
One big question is – if someone wykombinovaćs something, »figured something out,« can you emulate it? Possibly. Sometimes wykombinovać brings about a recipe. Quite often, however, it is so connected to the perseverance of an individual or group that it remains unique. The pragmatic alchemist’s achievement is not easy to repeat. What is clear, however, is that it sets the tone. If someone has done it, it is possible. It’s a contagious attitude.
Wykombinować is not some insane sacrifice. It’s not connected to a painful effort. You do it because you’re up to it. If the problem is serious, you need to focus more and it will take more time. But you don’t whine; you don’t cry. Actually – you don’t suffer. No more per aspera ad astra (Latin for »through the hardships to the stars.«) You replace the cult of suffering with a playful search for solutions. (As a Pole, I can tell you this is a crucial quality for me.)
One last thing: the future.
Wykombinować goes against all the grand narratives. It laughs in the face of governments and corporations. It doesn’t mind the stupidity of the future and the seeming lack of perspectives. It looks for solutions, without pathos and great agendas. It may not solve the climate crisis. And a few other issues. But it helps us have hope on a human level. Combining, recombining, outcombining, drilling our way through, every time.