A Croatian Anti-Destination Wedding: Fjaka-Up Your Nuptials

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Overwhelmed by the lumbering apparatus that is your wedding?

Here are a few pointers from a guy who hosted a sorta-big wedding on a small island.

[Or: how my now-wife and I tried to simplify the most important day of Our Lives.]

Like most intricate plans my marriage proposal scheme, in retrospect, couldn’t succeed.

Yet its dissolution set the tone for our wedding and accidentally taught us the trick to pulling off nuptials in the middle of nowhere. It’s the trick to surviving anything in Croatia: fjaka.

But at the time, everything felt foolproof.

I’d wait for an outing to a nearby desolate islet: my girlfriend, our dog Flo and I idling away beneath some pine trees.

I’d tie a ring to a neat red bow around Flo’s neck then hurl a pine cone in Tina’s general direction. The mutt, as per usual, would go apeshit chasing after the pine cone, in the process delivering a white gold engagement ring with a faux diamond and I’d ask, “Will you marry me?”

 

Here’s how it actually happened:

Tina struck a serene lazy pose facing the sea with her back turned towards me. Flo spent the better part of the day zig-zagging around the island, snapping at honey bees.

“What are you two doing?” Tina asked, not bothering to turn around and see me wrangling our insane dog into a few calm seconds so I can slip the ring-bearing bow over its head.

“Just playing with our hairy piglet,” I cooed through clenched teeth, cursing the dog’s short attention span and clear disdain for my absurd sense of romance.

Ring secured, I chucked a pine cone in Tina’s direction expecting Flo’s usual instinct to take over. No tennis ball, bone or treat could motivate our bizarre little bitch like a pine cone.

Instead, the yellow lab-looking saboteur bolted past Tina, past the pine cone and straight for the water, the ring flailing around her nape. “No! Flo! Ne!” I shouted.

“What did you tie around her neck?” Tina asked glibly, unaware of the panic-sweats swamping my whole body. She thought I dressed up our pet with some errant garbage I found lying around.

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The Engagement Ring delivery system, pre-failure.

Flo stopped when the water reached her belly and began panting up at the sky in that usual dumb dog face all canines make when they’re satisfied with their lot in life. I saw the ring glint in the sun, loose and dangling above the water.

“Seriously, what is that thing you tied around her neck?” Tina asked again, straightening up then beckoning Flo over.

The mongrel traversed the craggy shore towards us then stopped when the ring snagged onto a rock sticking up out of the water. “No Flo, noooooooooooooo!” I shouted as Flo yanked and yanked and yanked to free herself.

Tina laughed, unaware the dog was about to jettison her engagement ring and the many months it took me to find it.

I dropped to my knees and rested my face in my hands, resigning myself to accepting my whole intricate plan sublimated into one giant disaster.

Oh hell, years later I will laugh about over drinks as I explained why I never married the girl with the curly hair and squinting eyes.

Flo, through sheer dumb luck or a perverse sense of humor, freed herself and ambled over to us.

“Where did you find this thing?” Tina asked as she spun the soggy bow around Flo’s neck. Finally, she spotted the engagement ring dangling loosely by a scant bit of fabric at the bow’s tip and let out an “Awwwwwwww.”

I fumbled after the ring before the damned dog jetted off with it again, and while a nervous sweat slicked my brow asked, “Will you marry me?”

“Of course,” Tina replied, then held out her hand.

“Well at least this part is going well,” I said as I slipped the ring past her first knuckle only for it to stop somewhere in the middle of her finger. Too small… by at least six sizes.

It was somewhere in this process I gave up all hope of romantic theatrics. I’m a too much a buffoon to organize anything; Tina too clever to even try. 

We decided our wedding would be a carefree bacchanal — what we call a “fešta” — with a nautical element and marriage ceremony thrown somewhere in the mix.

The dog would not attend.

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The seaside tents set up for the food and band.

Fate forced our hand anyway. We’d marry on our home island of Iž; hosting an intricate wedding would be like having ice skating championships in the Sahara. Too much of a bother and who would want to go anyway? We combined two of Mali Iž’s best summer events — “Alajo Vez” and “Fešta” — which we’d already helped organize in the past, taking place a few hundred meters from our front door. We’d wedge our wedding ceremony into the schedule somewhere. 

The ultimate anti-destination wedding. The result? 

Best I can remember, we said “Da” [I do] aboard an old boat to some lady who spouted bureaucratic jargon; signed some papers; hopped onto a flotilla of small boats spinning in place in the middle of the neighboring channel.

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“Alajo Vez”, a Mali Iž tradition, in full force.

At some point afterward, we danced, drank copious amounts of alcohol and were ever-mindful of letting the people we hired for food and music do their jobs.

The result, in retrospect, was Dalmatia’s cherished Fjaka in ceremonial form. The nuptial version of “aspiring to nothing,” a principle which I imagine will also lead to a long-lasting marriage.

[Author’s note: I’d be remiss to not praise Tina, an absolute warrior goddess who more or less took the toughest tasks out of my bumbling hands after seeing my ineptitude that first day.]

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The bride made shoes traditionally worn by islanders, in funky colors, called Škarpine.

If you’ve got a wedding on the horizon and are thinking of having it on an island, here are a few lessons I’ve learned.

Do unto your guests as you’d have done unto you

When was the last time you longed to attend a wedding? Not your sister’s, or close friend’s, but a familial acquaintance you’ve talked to twice over the last decade? You appreciate the gesture, but deep down you know the hours-long drill:

Ceremony -> applause -> dance -> applause -> toast -> applause -> dance -> small talk -> cake -> applause

It doesn’t have to be this way. This charade, an Americanism in the worst sense, has infected Croatian wedding ceremonies, which used to be “marry then eat and drink” affairs.

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No rigorously scheduled meals. Hungry? Eat at the buffet. Feeling energetic? Dance.

If you hate weddings that last 14 hours, why host one yourself?

If you find the whole cadence of a modern wedding reception annoying, ditch it!

If you think the photographer becomes a living, breathing hemorrhoid after the first 15 minutes, don’t hire one.

Using this same philosophy, we eliminated:

  • Church — can’t remember the last time either of us attended a regular Sunday Mass anyway
  • The photographer
  • The procession of food (instead opting for a buffet)
  • The cake
  • Toasts and speeches (granted, they’re not as prevalent in Croatia)

We spared ourselves:

  • A boring sermon from the local priest who grows ornery when people other than the usual gang of sinners enter the church.
  • Contorting ourselves into odd poses and expressing emotions on demand for a photographer possessing all the charm of a festering wart.
  • Having a rigorous, gestapo-like attitude towards our guests who, whatever they’re doing, must Eat Now, then Dance Now.

Let the people you hire do their jobs

Someone, at some point, gets upset and cannot contain their emotions. Crap weddings often go haywire thanks to heavy-handed interventions by the bride, the groom, best man or upset parents.

Do as much homework as you can ahead of time, picking professionals with a track-record. Croatia’s a small country, and bad reputations travel far.

Besides, by the time you’re about to say your vows, all the pieces have been set in motion. You cannot intervene.

Did the band’s rendition of “Unchained Melody” sound like a bag of alley cats tumbling down a mountainside?

Did the weather ruin every outdoor element of your picturesque day?

How did the Uncle everybody likes pick a fight with a soon-to-be in-law?

Did Jadrolinija’s ferry schedule warp your sense of space and time to feel as if an interstellar vacuum sucked your wedding date off the calendar?

Remember the chief fjaka rule: aspire for nothing. At the first sign of discord, malice or shoddy workmanship… turn away and keep dancing.

[It’s at this point I should thank Angelus Catering, Rockatansky Band, Trio Fešta, Pečenjara Topali and Mali Iž’s community board, among others, for helping us run our monstrous wedding apparatus without headaches]

Exploit the freedom

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Perhaps too much of this was going on…

It was about 2:30 in the morning on my wedding day and I was hundreds of meters away from the reception, streaking a vomit comet across the surface of the Adriatic Sea with zero fear of repercussions. (I later learned many others did the same that night).

I stabbed my noggin forehead-first into the water and inhaled, filling my sinuses. I paused to appreciate the moment.

This seems a bit of a foregone conclusion, but one of the chief joys of living on an island is a propensity for low-level hijinks and lack of shame.

No police around. Laws, at best, often seem a friendly suggestion. Only friends can catch you at your worst, and they reserve their judgment. They too, after all, may puke at some wedding.

I’ve seen too many brides and grooms so saddled with the pressure of ritualistic nonsense they forget to enjoy their own wedding.

Don’t let this be you, especially if you’re marooned on an island with no means to correct mistakes.

Go overboard with your vices. Enjoy yourself.

Relax. Your significant other already said “I do” and literally can’t run away. You’re surrounded by water.

Just… leave the dog at home.

Oh! And if you can, marry a steely-nerved soul who’ll lovingly do all the heavy lifting (Thank you, Draga).

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