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A unique and struggling German tradition is the Wandergeselle, Geselle, or journeyman— a 3 year and one day pilgrimage which novice Zimmermänner (carpenters) undertake after finishing an apprenticeship. Sometimes this is even considered another test or Herausforderung (challenge) in the apprenticeship. The “traveling carpenters” gehen auf die Walz (set off on a journey) on foot with little more than a knotted and gnarled wooden staff with some small Besitz (possession) bundled in a Charlottenburg (a cloth bag) fastened to the end of it. Der Zweck (point) of the apprenticeship is to travel no closer (or further) than 50 kilometers, roughly 31 miles from within their hometown or village. Their mission is to find odd jobs in exchange for Unterkunft (room or board). A few restrictions do apply. Gesellen (journeymen) are not allowed to travel with Handys (cell phones) or technical devices like GPS Systems; they must be under thirty years of age; and furthermore, they are not allowed to return to their home city or village until completion of the journey. There is, however, one exception to this rule. If a family member dies, it is permissible to return to their Heimstatt (homestead, home) for grievance.
Its Bestehen (existence) has its roots in Zünfte, or guilds from medieval Germany. When young apprentices sought to become master carpenters, they would take a loyal oath to a certain guild. It was often restricted for the journeymen to work independently from their guild. The goal then was too gain experience over a period of years and through the completion of jobs. The ultimate achievement would be the honor of becoming a master craftsman. Subsequently, journeymen in medieval Germany, more often than not, were too poor to afford supplies and housing for their own artesian shops. Thus, a large amount of Gesellen (journeyman) continued to work within their original guild for their entire lives.
An article published by Der Spiegel, a German magazine, discusses how “most of the Gesellen (journeymen) are carpenters, cabinet-makers, roofers, tile layers, masons or plumbers, and their travels are meant to teach them about work and life.” In the past, going auf die Walz (off on the journey) was a way of building skills and progressing forward in a trade. Today, it still has that intent and value, but it also serves a new function. For many journeymen, it is a way of earning a living and surviving in the world for a short time before entering the economic turmoil and tough labor market.
The wandering carpenters are gekleidet (dressed) in traditional Tracht (garb) of a black Weste (waist coat), black ausgestellte (flared) Kordhose (corduroy pants), black hat and a white shirt. In addition, a black Krawatte (necktie) and a corduroy overcoat, are worn. The clothing is all hand-made and individually fitted for each carpenter. I often wished and still do on occasion, how exciting it would have been if I had the opportunity to become a Geselle (journeyman) and travel the German Landschaft (country side) working only for food and bed. Unfortunately, my time is running out as I quickly approach thirty.
I saw many Wandergesellen (Journeymen) during my year stay in Germany. I am continually mystified and in wonder of this tradition. Once I discovered that the funny dressed men were not hobos, wizards, magicians or Merlin, himself just time-warped to the present straight from Camelot, I grew more curious and wondered why we didn’t have anything as exciting or self-actualizing in the U.S. for our journeymen.
I engaged in a few conversations with the locals—those of whom I befriended. They shared with me that the Wandergesellen (journeymen) tradition is not as prominent as it once was. Though this may be the general trend, if you spend a good amount of time in Germany, Austria and Liechtenstein, you will definitely happen upon young carpenters looking for an honest day’s work. So, if you encounter Gesellen (journeymen) during your travels abroad, invite them to dinner, for a beer or simply donate a small amount of money. You will be supporting the longevity of a European tradition.
Note: In all the research and experience I have done on this subject, I have not come across anything that suggests women partake in this tradition. Does anyone have any information about this?
Geselle/n-journeyman, assistant, guild member
Auf die Walz gehen-to go on a journey/pilgrimage
Der Zweck/e-point, aim, purpose
Der Bezitz-possession (collectively Plural)
Die Charlottenburg-cloth bag
Die Unterkunft-room and board/accommodations (plural)
Das Handy/-cell phone
Die Heimstatt/ (ä)e- homestead, home
Die Zunft/ (ü) e-guild
Die Kordhose/n- corduroy pants
Die Landschaft/en- country side