Fjaka, “fee YA ka”. Say it. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Say it again, faster. Now you’ve got it.
The first few days after landing in Croatia, I kept hearing this phrase being thrown around, not really understanding what it meant. I asked around about it, and no one could really give me a straight answer. Without even realizing it, I was seeing it in action. The relaxed, easy way with which the locals here carry themselves told me all I needed to know.
It’s hard to get a sense of Fjaka without experiencing it for yourself but I’ll define it for you as I’ve understood it. A deviation from the Italian “fiacca”, or “sluggishness”; part of which makes sense considering how much of an Italian influence there is here. Diocletian, the Roman emperor that was native to this region, built a monumental palace here in the 3rd century A.D. that still stands as the most well-preserved Roman palace in the world. It’s a labyrinth full of gelato stands, bars, restaurants, Game of Thrones themed tourist shops, and the like. That doesn’t stop it from taking your breath away the moment you emerge into the central square, next to the oldest Catholic cathedral in Europe — complete with a real Egyptian Sphinx standing guard that was already an ancient relic when it was placed there 1,600 years ago. The Venetians used Split and the surrounding areas as an outpost and their fingerprints are still all over everything from the architecture to the cuisine. The part of “fiacca” that doesn’t make sense is the negative connotation associated with the word “sluggishness”. Sluggish implies lazy, which would be an affront to the Croatians that live by the code of Fjaka.
The most literal translation of the phrase I’ve been able to find of Fjaka is when “a human being aspires for nothing”. Most Dalmatians see it as a divine gift. Fjaka, to them, isn’t something that can be taught. One must experience it to truly understand. Over the weeks I’ve been here, I’ve felt myself slowly be able to grasp a little more of the concept. It’s the little things at first, you begin to walk slower. The thwack of your flip flops becomes softer as they hit the centuries old marble and limestone cobbled streets of the ancient towns. After a particularly good morning spent helping to volunteer at a home in Split for people with special needs I caught myself slowing my pace to stop and rub a rosemary bush — a favorite smell — that had gotten too big for its planter, cascading down the stone wall like a fragrant green waterfall. We rounded a corner on the walk home and emerged on a path fronting the Adriatic Sea. Time seemed to slow, the sound of the gentle waves lapping the pebbly beaches, making that very unique woosh sound you don’t get with sand, and the smell of the salt and the Mediterranean pine trees wafted through the air, the birds sang as they danced overhead. I felt it — right then and there — I aspired to be nowhere else and be doing nothing else. I had found my fjaka.
That moment will stick with me for some time. Ever since then, the most cortisol I’ve had in my system is from almost missing a ferry — to go to an island.
For others, Fjaka comes in different forms. Through Remote Year, in each city we participate in “tracks”, experiences that are designed to get you deeper than the surface level of what would be considered “tourism”, and connect you with locals to learn their stories. Our track for Split found us on the island of Šolta, in the care of a man named Igor for the day.
We first encountered Igor by chance on the morning ferry on the way out to the island from Split. A tall, well-built, middle aged man, fitting of his name, he jovially greeted us and explained to us what we would be doing for the day. You ever been to a fish farm? Up to that point neither had I. Yay new things. We stepped off the ferry onto the island and he sped away on his motorcycle without so much as a word. We stood there for a minute, wondering what we were supposed to be doing, until our host came rolling back up in a van and we all piled in. On our way to his farm we asked him how he had come to get into the business. As it turned out, Igor had been an executive in the corporate world, had grown weary of the day-to-day grind, found the farm for sale and decided to take a chance and go into business for himself. His farm now supplied fish to restaurants all over the island and beyond. When we arrived to the farm, we met Maya, another local who spoke to us for a bit about her efforts to raise awareness to keep these pristine islands the way they are. She explained that, many of the locals that were born on Šolta and the neighboring islands take the natural beauty and resources for granted. She painted a grim picture of the reality of things if they were to continue on their current pace over the next several years. As she spoke, I looked out to the little bay right down a path from the table we were seated at, to Igor’s fish pens, and to the Adriatic beyond. It seemed impossible to me that anyone could get used to living in such a beautiful place, much less take it for granted. I appreciated that many people, myself included, travel to destinations without much thought about the wear and tear tourism can take on a place. I found myself being much more conscious of that, and trying to lessen my footprint after hearing what Maya had to say.
A little later, it was time for a tour of the fish pens, we boarded Igor’s little boat, the waterline inching up towards the top of the gunwale as each person got on, and puttered over to the floating pens. I stepped up on to the wobbly boards that surrounded the netting and peered down into the mass of thousands of swirling Sea Bream below.
“Who wants to jump? It’s OK.” Igor asked with a shrug, through a thick Slavic accent.
The group looked around for a minute and my hand went up, when was the next time I was going to have a chance to do something like this?
“I’ll do it.”
Igor nodded in my direction approvingly and tossed me a scuba mask. I turned on my GoPro and eased myself into the cage. I stuck my head under the water and took a look around, the fish were schooling under my feet, circling in the crystal clear water with the light glinting off their scales like a giant, living disco ball.
“The best view is from underneath.” I heard Igor say as I poked my head up. I inhaled and dove down as far as I could. I looked up from the bottom of the net and started toward the surface, the fish parted and I was swallowed into the school. I was only inside for a split second, but never in my life have I experienced anything like that. Surrounded on all sides, a 360 degree mass of moving scales, bones, and muscle. It was disorienting in a wonderful sort of way. I emerged a babbling idiot, spitting out a mouthful of salt water and, very eloquently described the scene to everyone:
“Holy Shit! They’re everywhere!”
Igor looked down at me with a knowing grin.
A little later, Igor took a net and scooped up several of the same fish I had been swimming with just moments before. Dumping them into a bucket he looked up and pointed to them ,“Lunch”. He brushed them in that delicious Dalmatian olive oil and threw them on the coals of his open air brick oven. A few minutes later we were feasting on what was undoubtedly some of the best fish I’d ever tasted. Free from antibiotics, hormones, or other preservatives, and seasoned by the high salinity of the sea; beautiful and clean, how all of our food should be.
As we were eating, I couldn’t help but think of how lucky Igor was. To give the proverbial finger to the corporate world and go into business for yourself, doing something that makes you happy and provides happiness to others in return is-in my opinion- the pinnacle of “work” as we know it. I see it quite a bit in America, people working themselves to death in order to “keep up with the Joneses”, placing an emphasis on material things rather than experiences. For whatever reason, Europeans seemed to have figured out the balance between making a living and living along the way.
Being able to slow down and enjoy life is a valuable skill that takes time to master. For some life is more about getting to a destination and less about the journey. On the ferry ride back to Split I thought about Igor’s story and how the world would be a better place if more people decided to do what he did. Fjaka can manifest itself in many different ways, but you can’t force it. Stop and smell the Rosemary, you never know what will happen from there.