I love it when a language has a term that can’t be translated — it has to be explained. Usually, these are the words that provide the most vivid insights into a culture. The easiest example may be the Spanish paseo or the Italian passeggiata: It’s not just walking around aimlessly, though it is that. It also has to do with living in a hot climate where you must wait until the cool of the evening to escape into the open air. It’s about spending time with family, socializing with friends and neighbors, getting some exercise, and enjoying a beautiful cityscape…all implied by that one word.
Out of everywhere I’ve traveled, the Bosnian language has more of these unique words than anyone. Maybe it’s because Bosnia is a bridge between western/Christian and eastern/Muslim culture — mystifying people on both sides. And so, like a secret club coming up with a password, they craft their own language.
Hanging out with my Sarajevan fried Amir, I started quizzing him about some of these words. He explained the concept of raja — meaning an unpretentious humility that stems from being one with a community. Raja is frowning upon anyone who thinks they’re a big shot. It’s about keeping people modest, for their own good…and everyone else’s. Raja is what prevents you from being the jerk who shows up in a convertible and a tux to your high school reunion.
Merak is enjoyment, particularly a relaxed atmosphere that percolates when you’re among friends. It’s when you’re nursing a cup of coffee with nowhere in particular to go — enjoying the simple act of passing the time of day. Amir explains that the whole concept of take-away coffee is anathema to Bosnians. The purpose of coffee is not just to caffeinate — it’s to have an excuse to socialize. And if you’re going out for a snack to enjoy with your merak, that’s called mezetluk (related to the Greek mezedes, or tapas-like small plates).
But my favorite Bosnian word of all — the one that has the potential to really shake up your worldview — is ćejf (pronounced “chayf”).
Ćejf is that annoying habit or ritual you have. It’s the unique little quirk that drives your loved ones nuts. And yet, you get a lot of pleasure out of it. No, not just pleasure: deep satisfaction. In traditional Bosnian culture, ćejf describes the specific way someone spins his worry beads, the way he smokes his pipe, or the very particular procedure she has for preparing and drinking a cup of Bosnian coffee.
In our culture, we have these, too. We just don’t notice them as readily, because we don’t have a word for it. For example, maybe you have a complex way of ordering your perfect Starbucks. Or every Saturday, you wash and detail your car just so. Or maybe it’s the way you like to keep your desk organized, according to a special logic that only you fully understand. If I’m being honest, my own ćejf is probably the way I tinker with my fantasy football lineup. (Should I start Danny Woodhead or Joseph Randle this week?) Or the way I chew gum when I’m stressed out: Exrta Polar Ice flavor, always two sticks…never just one.
In our culture, people call this behavior “fussy,” or “OCD”…or, simply, “annoying.” Whether we’re going to the office, spending time with the in-laws, or just irritating our spouses around the house, we are expected to check our ćejf at the door.
But in Bosnia, they just shake their head and say, that’s his ćejf. In Bosnian culture, you don’t have to like someone’s ćejf. But — as long as it’s not hurting anyone — you do have to accept it. Because everyone has one (or more). Bosnians recognize that each human being is a complete individual, with their own strengths and quirks.
When you think about it, accepting a person without accepting their ćejf isn’t really accepting the person at all. So the next time someone gets up in your grill about your annoying little routine, just say, “Step off! That’s my ćejf.”
So…what’s your ćejf?