With the pandemic still blocking what used to be our lives, people are looking to dig where they stand. In Sweden, house prices are soaring as we move out of the city centres to do our distance work from a more pleasant environment. People now mainly look for that extra room where you can put your desk and a garden where you can spend quality time, while still staying home. Real estate brokers are having the best of times!
Those who are not moving are doing their best to renovate what they’ve got, repaint, refurnish or change rooms with each other. Swedes are known for caring a lot about how they live and what it looks like – part of the reason is probably because we spend so much time indoors, given the weather conditions in these parts.
When Olga moved to China in 1905, she was not used to any fancy living. She grew up in a farmhouse on an island in the Stockholm archipelago, had spent some years serving as a maid at farms outside of Stockholm and then in rich families in the city. After having lived in a hospital dorm in Glasgow for some years she she was ready to be in charge of her own home – and quite a different one, in China.
Setting up a missionary home in China was not a quick fix. When it had been decided where a missionary would be stationed, the mission bought or rented a regular Chinese house. Repairs were carried out. The walls were plastered white, the brick floors were mended and so on. The inner roof was always made out of paper glued onto reeds that were tied together in squares and fixed under the wooden roof beams, Olga tells in one of her early descriptions of moving to China.
When it was windy outside, the paper roof moved in waves up and down and made so much noice that it kept Olga awake all night. She also had to get used to rats running on the paper roofs and admitted she was scared the rats would fall through the paper – it did happen sometimes, she said.
When the roof was newly glued, she could hear the rats sniffing around (they felt the scent of flour) and how they tore out pieces of the roof with their sharp little teeth. Soon, the roof looked like a leaky sieve. The rats lived in the walls and used the paper for their baby rats to sleep on. Olga said the walls were so full of rat tunnels there was a danger the whole house would come down after a few years – and she witnessed it happen to others several times as well.
Olga could not be choosey when it came to furniture either. In the beginning, her furniture was mostly made out of wooden boxes, where she put in some shelves and curtains if they were big enough. The boxes served as chests, tables, bookshelves, washing stands and stools. After a while one could hire a Chinese carpenter to get some better furniture and also put in some bamboo mats to keep the floors from getting too dusty from the bricks.
But even though the inventory was very primitive she found her home in China pretty cosy. Curtains, some bright tablecloths and a couple of framed paintings on the walls made all the difference. She was happy if she had a coal stove to heat up the living space in winter – but to keep the cold out it had to be running all the time, since the house was very leaky and not at all isolated. The windows had paper in them instead of glass and let lots of cold in.
Olga was not one to complain, and when she compared her own living space with that of the Chinese in the rural areas where she worked, she called her own home “royal” in comparison. She didn’t take any photos (at least not any that are still with us) of those first interiors. Later she was probably more proud of her home and thus put these photos into her album.
Of course, the longer Olga stayed in China, the more she could build up her home. She moved several times to different missionary stations and often, there were some furniture there that the previous missionaries had not brought with them when going home or to another station. All in all, she was happy with her living conditions even when they were not comfortable by western standards. Olga always got to spend lots of time outside, visiting people in their homes, caring for the sick and helping out in the community.
I am very happy Olga took the time to describe how she started out and what the living conditions were back then. It might not be the most exciting story, but it is vital to understanding so much about life as she led it. I often think that the main clues to someone’s personality are not in the big gestures or happenings in their lives, but in the mundane, day-to-day details and ordinary routines.