If I had a euro for every time I’ve been asked why nobody in Dalmatia ever really seems to be doing anything, I’d be quite wealthy. What I will say is that you’d be a fool to confuse being slothful with fjaka. Fjaka (pronounced fyaka) is a sublime state of mind, and if foreigners living in Dalmatia want to embrace life – they must first get acquainted with it.
How might one explain it?
Well, that’s where it gets more difficult. A song was written about it by Trio Gušt, and some claim you have to first experience it before it can be understood. Luckily, it’s infectious. Croatian wordsmith Jakša Fiamengo referred to it as a faint unconsciousness and as a “state beyond the self.”
Certainly, lounging around doing nothing and appearing rather apathetic might easily be mistaken for laziness to the untrained eye.
This, mixed with Dalmatia’s other intoxicating attitude of “polako” (taking it easy), you may be under the impression that nothing ever gets done. In some cases, you might be right, but a quicker pace will never be preferable to indulging in a little fjaka for any self-respecting Dalmatian.
‘Fjaka grabbed hold of me’
Drawing its origins from the Italian word for weariness (fiacca), Fiamengo refers to it as both a state beyond the self, as well as a state deep within the self. He adds that fjaka embodies an indifference towards all important and ancillary needs, a lethargic stupor and a general passivity in which all sense of time is abandoned.
Let’s go back five years; work was being carried out in the apartment building I lived in. The plumber had told me, in an accent that instantly told me he was from Split, that he needed to go and fetch a specific tool. “Vratit ću se za pet minuta” (I’ll be back in five minutes) he assured me. “U redu, nije priša” (Okay, no pressure), I responded.
I instantly regretting having said it, but instinctively knowing that the plumber’s idea of five minutes was different than mine and that it was probably better that I accepted that he was going to be taken over by a dose of fjaka than actually expect him to return in five minutes.
I was right.
Fifteen minutes passed, then thirty … forty-five minutes later the plumber returned with said tool and no explanation or apology. There’s no need for a Dalmatian plumber to apologise for being late – time is a construct, after all – “Uhvatila me fjaka” (Fjaka grabbed hold of me) he said simply.
There have been countless times in which I’ve seen a waiter waiting until he’s finished reading his paper before serving increasing numbers of customers, a builder sneaking in forty winks even though the concrete is drying, or a local merchant having a snooze at his stall, cigarette hanging precariously from his sun-baked lips.
They’re not lazy, work-shy or heedless – fjaka has simply taken them.
‘How can the disrespect of time become a culturally praised trait?’
An elderly Dalmatian man who had moved to Germany for work many decades ago once reminisced with me about Ćiro, an old Dubrovnik train that used to run a long time ago. When I asked if he missed it, he jokingly said: “Sure, but you wouldn’t miss it if it still ran now; it’d never be on time often enough for you to miss it!”
For foreigners living in Dalmatia, the concept of fjaka might be frustrating at first. What could possibly be good about being lazy, or in some cases, even rude? How can the disrespect of time be a culturally praised trait?
Well, throw the scorching Dalmatian afternoon sun, the insufferable summer heat and the sound of the gentle waves of the Adriatic Sea against the rocks into a mixing bowl and you’ll have your answer. The absolutely ideal conditions for the brewing of fjaka are all of the above, stirred by the generally insouciant Dalmatian temperament.
While foreigners are unlikely to truly learn the concept of fjaka, they’ll definitely end up inadvertently “catching” it in some way or another after a while. It goes with the territory.
It isn’t fatigue, but it is sluggish. It isn’t laziness, but it is nonchalant.
Living in Dalmatia, it won’t take long before you have your first experience of fjaka, and you’ll likely begin to embrace the art of slowing down like the Dalmatians, if for no other reason than – if you can’t beat them, you may as well join them.
Read more about Croatia here in Dispatches’ archives.
Lauren is the editor of Total Croatia News, the largest English language portal in Croatia. She lives in Zagreb, Croatia, and is a translator, content writer, interpreter and the co-author of Croatia - A Survival Kit for Foreigners, which was published in 2022.