I’ve been to Germany several times, but most of my time has been spent in cities, not tootling around the countryside. So I can’t say that I’ve ever come across any “Wandegesellen.” And I’m quite sure I would remember if I’d seen any guys dressed as bell-bottomed chimney sweeps.
The Wandergesellen (translation: journeymen) are:
…young men, and these days women, too, who have finished their required training in any number of trades and are traveling to gather experience. Most are from German-speaking countries. In the past, journeymen traveled under the auspices of a trade association, and today many still do. But many also take up the practice freely, though still adhering to the strict, often arcane, rules handed down largely through word of mouth to preserve the tradition. (Source: NY Times)
Journeymen are 30 and under, unmarried, and not in debt. To compete their training – as carpenters,bakers, gardeners – journeymen take off for two to three years:
— plus a day, and to live by their wits, their trade and the generosity of strangers.
While they’re on the road (primarily in German-speaking countries, but sometimes far afield) the journeymen rely on other journeymen, and – oh, so sweetly - on the kindness of strangers.
While on the road, journeymen are not supposed to pay for food or accommodations, and instead live by exchanging work for room and board. In warm weather, they sleep in parks and other public spaces. They generally carry only their tools, several changes of underwear, socks and a few shirts wrapped into small bundles that can be tied to their walking sticks — and that can also double as pillows. Most journeymen will work in the jobs for which they are trained. But they also take other work, either to expand their skill set or out of a need for food or a change of pace.
The Wandegesellen have been around since Medieval times – with hiatuses for during the two world wars. After WWII, the tradition died out until the 1980’s. Which may explain why, during the time I spent in the German countryside in the early 1970’s, I didn’t spot any of them In Germany, people recognize who they are because of their distinctive garb. And they can translate the jacket colors into the trade. The fellows in the picture above are wearing black. That makes them carpenters or roofers.
Others are not so in the know.
“Outside of Germany, we are often taken for cowboys,” said Arnold Böhm, 25, a carpenter from Görlitz who spent time working in Cape Verde, Namibia and South Africa.
Maybe not cowboys, but definitely independent and traveling light.
Traditionally, a journeyman was not allowed to travel or seek work within a 60- kilometer radius of his hometown — a guideline intended to encourage an exchange of ideas among those practicing any given trade. Today, it remains a way to ensure that the journeyman develops independence.
I think this is a great tradition and wonderful ideas.College is fine. For a lot of kids, it gets them away from home. But it doesn’t necessarily foster independence, especially if they’re subsidized by the Bank of Mom and Dad.
Getting drafted – and I do remember the day when EVERYONE male went into the service – pulled kids out of their home town and their comfort zone. It was a good leveler, good for democracy. But who wants to see their kid get shot at in Afghanistan, let alone North Korea.
My niece Molly spent a recent semester abroad. Like most kids who spend a semester somewhere in Europe, she and her new friends did plenty of weekend and school break traveling. (Thank you, Ryanair and AirBnB.) But Molly wanted to take at least one trip on her own, in a country where she knew no one and didn’t speak the language. So she took off on a trip to Italy, where she made her way through Verona, Venice, Pisa, and Florence.
We were all so proud of our very own Wandegesellen, even if she didn’t have to work while she was out exploring.
But most young folks don’t even do something like Molly did, let alone what the Wandegesellen take on.
Wandering around, singing (or gardening, or tiling, or roofing) for your supper. What a great idea.