“Why? Do you believe in elves?” Mr. and Mrs. Salters questioned me in utter astonishment. I could see they were wondering whether I was really sane enough to look after their three little boys.
That was the defining moment at a dining table in Surrey when I discovered that not everybody is familiar with the existence of elves, fairies and hidden people. As a 19-year-old au pair for an Irish family in the UK, I was the real fish out of water.
Here was my first dose of culture shock. After all, Iceland isn’t that much different from other European countries. But this time, it was as if somebody had told me that grass wasn’t green, but purple!
As an Icelander, I am aware that invisible creatures are lurking about all around us. Growing up in the countryside, I lived on a farm at the foot of a mountain, where consideration toward the hidden world was as common as the courtesy you pay any other farm denizen.
”Don’t touch the cows while they’re milking!” ”Don’t handle the lambs or the ewes won’t take to them!” ”Don’t climb up on that rock because you’ll disturb the elves!” ”Don’t feed the horses before you ride. It’ll make them gassy.” ”Don’t make so much noise by that hill there. Someone might be trying to sleep inside it!”
And my favourite… “Don’t spit in the dark; you never know what you might hit!”
There were even certain spots where my father never cut the grass, out of respect for the hidden people.
His mother, my grandmother, was one of those who could see such creatures. I remember hearing a story of her warning my grandfather not to build a sheep-shed in a particular spot. It was too close to a hill occupied by hidden people.
He didn’t listen and started raising the big, steel rafters. By next morning the rafters had all collapsed during the calm summer night. This happened two or three times before my grandfather gave up and raised a shed at a proper distance from the hill.
Whenever polls were made they showed that 70 to 80 percent of Icelanders somewhat believed in the existence of other creatures around us although not as many would admit to it openly. But I honestly thought that we were just a small sample of the rest of the world and never imagined that other countries didn’t have hidden people and elves. Hey, I had read foreign stories where elves and fairies played a big role!
I’m sure that the couple I stayed with had read The Lord of the Rings and Peter Pan. But apparently they turned out to be disbelievers, despite being Irish!
One evening during dinner while watching telly we saw a woman, who claimed she could see and interact with elves and fairies. The Salters grinned and gave her a good eye-rolling. I didn’t see much wrong with what she was saying so I asked them whether they reckoned she was a fake. “Of course she is! Jesus, Mary and Joseph, talking to the elves?!?”
I was a little puzzled for a while because I didn’t see the obvious point they were making. “What, don’t you believe in elves and fairies at all?” I asked them with a nervous grin.
That’s when I noticed the change in their look. I could see that they were seriously questioning the sanity of this well mannered and fairly intelligent girl from Iceland who had been living under their roof and looking after their children for the past six months.
I muttered something about tradition and folklore but never again brought this subject up at the Salters’ house. In fact, I don’t discuss this much with foreigners, period. I try not to bother anyone with my seemingly crazy notions.
I just go about life, like the hidden people. And I keep my mouth closed, making sure never to spit in the dark. After all, you don’t know what you might hit.
Ingibjörg Rósa Björnsdóttir is a guest contributor replacing Jonas, who is away from the office this week.
IRB – [email protected]