Fjaka: The Croatian Art Of Doing Nothing Much At All

What’s the secret to a good life?

Every European country has its own angle on this – and at some time over the last few decades, the people in charge of marketing these countries to the rest of the world sat up and started paying close attention. 

It probably started with hygge, the Danish term for embracing a simple, cozier mode of existence. Hygge became a self-help publishing phenomenon…except, that doesn’t quite capture it, because it’s not a striving thing. The more effort you put into doing it, the less you attain its promised state of blissful contentment. It’s like grabbing a bar of soap in the shower – squeeze too hard and and *whoosh*, away it goes.

In a modern world obsessed with stressful self-optimisation, hygge arrived on everyone’s like a friend with a crate of beer and a couple of big pizzas. Hey! Why don’t we just chill out like normal people do?

What’s the secret to a good life?
What’s the secret to a good life?

Then other countries decided to get in on the fun. Sweden started promoted lagom (“everything in moderation”). The Japanese extolled the virtues of ikigai: uncovering your life’s purpose and reworking your world around it. Sweden fought back (if that’s the right way to put it) with fika, something between a state of mind and a coffee break. Or how about venturing out into the great Norwegian outdoors to get yourself a bit of friluftsliv, a state of oneness with Nature?

These trends sold a lot of books, encouraged a lot of impulse-buys on last-minute travel deals…and you’ll see them plastered everywhere if you go visit those places. 

(This isn’t to say they were invented just for marketing purposes. These traditions really do go back as far as they claim to. But there’s also a certain amount of branding work going on here.)

So – what about Croatia? If you’re coming with us on our Croatia, Slovenia & the Adriatic Coast trip in May, what’s the word that sums up the quintessential Croatian attitude to a life well lived?

That word is fjaka – and in translating it into English, I’m going to have to be really careful.

How would you react if someone described you as “lazy”? I’m guessing – not well. In countries where frantic, almost inhuman levels of busyness are seen as a cultural virtue and where productivity is regarded as a synonym for being a pillar of society, deliberately frittering away your precious time can look like a sign of poor character. You had the whole afternoon off work and you did nothing with it? For shame! What a waste.

But to Croatians – particularly those along the Dalmation coast – this kind of idleness is something many aspire to. You spent the whole day drinking coffee and watching people down by the harbour? How clever you must be to be able to do that.

Plitvice Lakes, Croatia
Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

For anyone used to a more productivity-obsessed lifestyle, fjaka is a hard ask. Take the experience of travel writer David Farley, arriving in Croatia after a stressful few months, and asking someone for advice on attaining an idle state of mind:

‘“You can start,” he said, holding up his index finger, “by having a nice, typical Dalmatian lunch outside on a sunny day. Even after you finish, sit there in the sun for a while. Relax. Watch the sea. Don’t think about what to write or where to go. Don’t think about tomorrow or even tonight. Turn your phone off. You have no goals for the next few hours.”

So I did. Or at least I tried. I left my phone in the apartment I had rented for the month. But sitting in a café while constantly feeling the urge to check my phone amounted to something of an existential crisis. I couldn’t cope with those blank spaces in between.’

– from “Unlocking Croatia’s Secret To Easy Living” by David Farley, AFAR

Or take writer Kristin Vuković’s experience of it:  

‘During my visits, starting in 2000, I observed that while tourists basked under the relentless afternoon sun, Dalmatians would often retire indoors or to a shady spot for the equivalent of a siesta – a regenerating summer habit that replenishes the body and mind. I became comfortable with unproductive afternoons spent in the shade, allowing fjaka to wash over me like a soft Mediterranean breeze. When stores were closed, I accepted the response, “He is on fjaka.” I grew to appreciate the slower Dalmatian pace. The relaxed attitude encouraged me to take one day at a time.’

– “Dalmatia’s Fjaka State Of Mind” by Kristin Vuković, BBC Travel

Dubrovnik Old Town, Croatia
Dubrovnik Old Town, Croatia

So what makes this attitude of mindful idleness so unique to Croatia? What makes this different to the good, old-fashioned lazing in the sunshine that’s popular everywhere with a warm climate?

You should probably ask a Dalmatian about that. But it seems to me that a big part of it is that you’re not ‘waiting’. When we sit nursing a coffee outside a cafe, there’s usually a deeper, more important-feeling reason we’re there. Perhaps a friend will be turning up soon. Perhaps our hotel room isn’t ready for us yet. Maybe it’s too late for breakfast and too early for lunch (although this rarely happens in the Mediterranean, it’s never the wrong time to eat something). 

The point is: our idling-time is a side-effect. It’s not the thing itself.

How often do we deliberately and mindfully put the time aside to just sit and just be, to turn inactivity and a lack of striving into a desirable, planned experience in itself? And – why isn’t just sitting with a coffee or a beer in the sunshine seen as having exactly the same health-boosting value as meditation or sleep?

These are excellent questions, and maybe fjaka is a good place to start searching for answers. Except, searching lazily. Just kinda drifting along into them, without particularly wanting to close that knowledge gap anytime soon. Letting thoughts show up in their own time without trying to hurry them along in our usual way, like a farm-dog herding sheep.

Split Old Town, Croatia during sunrise
Split Old Town, Croatia during sunrise

It’s also worth noting that focused lazing like this is deeply enjoyable. Both Farley and Vuković note that sometimes, Croatians can be so engrossed in their fjaka that they’ll close their shops early, or attempt to dissuade anyone trying to procure their professional services, because that would break the spell the day has cast over them. Could this sound more alien to our work-always-comes-first Western mindsets?

(But since there’s a wealth of evidence to show that productivity is heavily reliant on contentment and that trying to grind through something unenjoyable usually sends your efficiency through the floor, maybe fjaka is onto something important here. Isn’t this just the increasingly popular 4-day work week in another guise?)

So, that’s fjaka. It’s really nothing much at all, in a way that can last all day. It’s delightfully undemanding, yet may make you feel kinda uncomfortable, until you get into the non-striving swing of it. It could become your favourite (non-)hobby. What are you waiting for?

Wheel & Anchor’s Croatia, Slovenia And The Adriatic Coast tour is departing for the Mediterranean sunshine in May of this year.

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