One hot July, I was sitting at a cafe in Dubrovnik waiting for someone to show up with keys to the apartment I was renting. It had been over an hour.
“Excuse me, have you seen Pero?” I asked the waiter in Croatian. “I am supposed to meet with him, to get keys to an apartment.”
“He is probably on fjaka,” the waiter said, shrugging.
Frustrated, I wanted to throw my hands up in the air. As an impatient New Yorker who always wears a watch, I was driven crazy by his lateness.
Apparently, there was a wave of fjaka going around, brought on by the high temperatures that summer. Pero eventually showed up with the keys after an hour and a half, without any explanation or apology.
By then, after a few trips to Dalmatia, a region of Croatia along the Adriatic Coast, I heard more about this word ‘fjaka’, but I had yet to grasp the concept, let alone try to accept it. My family’s roots are from Karlovac, near Zagreb, where the Austro-Hungarian influence imparted a different mentality.
As a local explained to me, fjaka is a sublime state in which a human aspires for nothing. Fjaka is something that can’t be learned; in Dalmatia, it’s considered a gift from God. And one must experience it to awaken its meaning. Various Dalmatians I spoke with over a dozen visits explained that fjaka is an elusive concept that is experienced in different ways.
Half somewhere and half nowhere
The first time I surrendered to fjaka was while studying the Croatian language in Dubrovnik in August 2004. It was during calmer, pre-tourism-boom times, before the medieval-walled city was a set for Game of Thrones and Star Wars. It began when I could hear the clicks of my flip-flops against the centuries-old cobblestones slowing down. I remember sitting at Café Festival on Stradun, the main artery of the Old Town, out of which lanes branch like a stick tree. Under the awning, which did little to shield me from the intense Mediterranean sun, I sipped bijela kava (white coffee) and sweated through my clothes, people-watching and scribbling in my journal for hours that easily slipped by.
It is like a faint unconsciousness
The oppressive heat and boiling Mediterranean sun brought about the languor inherent to fjaka; I felt I was being slowly beaten by the high summer temperatures. Eventually, I could barely lift my pen to the page, and my thoughts flitted by like the čiope (swifts) darting across the sky, their scythe-like wings carving through the cloudless expanse of blue. Fjaka caught me in her hot jaws like a phrase I later learned, “Ajme, judi, ufatila me fjaka!” (“Alas/Damn it, my friends, fjaka has caught me!”). My energy sapped, I felt unable to work.
19 January 2018