Germany's itinerant craftsmen

SUN JOURNAL

Wanderers: A slump in construction has led to the rebirth of a German tradition rooted in the Middle Ages.

March 30, 2002|By Carol J. Williams | Carol J. Williams,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NEU FAHRLAND, Germany - With a fresh paycheck in his pocket and his few worldly goods bundled up with his tools, roofer Rene Schroeder is hitting the road again, halfway through his journey along a path blazed during the Middle Ages.

Unable to find permanent employment, Schroeder has joined a society of wandering craftsmen bound by strict codes and traditions that oblige him to remain itinerant for at least three years and one day.

The ranks of the wandergesellen - skilled carpenters, cabinetmakers and bricklayers - have grown in these times of high joblessness and a nationwide construction slowdown after the frantic first decade of reunification, when much of eastern Germany had to be rebuilt.

Now, with more than 4 million Germans out of work, artisans such as Schroeder are selling their skills on the street as did legions of their forebears.

"I thought I wanted a regular job after trade school, but there aren't any to be had now in the eastern states," says Schroeder, 20, who left his parents, brothers and girlfriend behind in Magdeburg, capital of the impoverished Saxony-Anhalt state. "But it's been rewarding being on the road. Wanderers bring fresh air to a construction project, and we don't feel the stress of everyday life that builds up when you have a home and a family."

The wandergesellen, who now number about 500, usually travel alone, meeting up with fellow wanderers from more than 30 guilds covering crafts such as bricklaying and roofing. Settled veterans of the walz, as the period of itinerancy is known, administer the private society of journeymen and set the rules.

In exchange for their willingness to travel, the wanderers get access to short-term jobs and gain experience working for a respected organization.

Clad in uniforms designed for 19th-century shipwrights, wanderers in Neu Fahrland, a suburb of Potsdam, seem to have arrived via time travel. There are no cell phones chirping in their pockets or laptop computers in their crudely bound satchels; only the tools, such as hammers and chisels, that have changed little through the ages. They are craftsmen who do not use power tools.

A few bows toward modernity have been made in recent years as the number of lone artisans has grown along with Germany's new economic troubles. Qualified women are admitted to the guilds, and odd jobs for the journeymen can be called in to a computerized administrative center in Cologne. But women are still excluded from the network of hostels maintained by former wanderers for those still on the road, frustrating female guild members' efforts to participate in the walz by making them pay for their accommodations.

"It's easier to get work as a wanderer because general contractors want access to our skills but not necessarily to keep us on their permanent payroll," says Guido Brauer. The 33-year-old carpenter recently completed four years on the road that took him around the world, through Russia, Japan and Canada. He's now working for a construction company in Berlin.

The first year of the walz must be spent in German-speaking territory, which includes Austria, Switzerland and the Alsace-Lorraine region of eastern France. But after the indoctrination year, the wanderers are allowed, even encouraged, to range as wide in the world as their earnings can take them.

Herbert Wiegman and Olav Schmidt worked as traveling journeymen in the 1980s and now own a construction firm based in Berlin. They hire young wanderers for jobs requiring special skills, such as the restoration of buildings under historical protection. Four itinerants were busy recently replacing the wood beams of a 100-year- old apartment house in eastern Berlin's Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood.

"When you want quality, you go to these guys," Wiegman says. "They are clearly diligent in their work, or they wouldn't be putting up with this lifestyle. It's not for everyone. A lot of guys prefer to stay home with their moms until a regular job surfaces, or they have girlfriends who want to get married. But those who stick with it can be counted on to do top-class work."

Wandergesellen must be single, free of debt and, in the case of men, already through their compulsory military service, unless they have arranged a deferment, says Guenter Grimm, the "old master" for the Berlin-Potsdam veterans group, one of dozens around the country that administer the program.

Justus Matthias, a Berlin architect, spent four years in the 1980s with Les Compagnons du Devoir, the French equivalent of the German wanderers. The far more structured and less tradition-bound society employs about 2,500 craftsmen from Europe in union-supervised internships. Matthias' stint with the French cabinetmakers guild took him to Ireland and Greece before he returned to his native country to study architecture and start a family.

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