Europe’s Wandering Apprentices, Foreign and Free

Travelling craftsmen have roamed across Europe since the Middle Ages. Today, the journey continues on a global scale

Travelling gardener Eva is heading south to catch the first buds of spring | Photo: Jelena Kopanja

Silhouetted against the fog, she seemed to belong to a different time. Still, her small, brimmed hat, the bundles of belongings fastened to the wooden frame she carried on her back, and the crooked walking stick are the perfect introduction to Eva, a “foreign and free” journeywoman.

Eva, 28, is a gardener and one of some 450 wandering crafts(wo)men or Wandergesellen from Germany currently travelling the world for three years and one day to hone their skills. The figure is only an estimate. The Confederation of Journeymen in Europe (CCEG) doesn’t know the exact number due to the codes of secrecy governing journeymen organisations to this day.

Eva was heading south when we talked, in pursuit of climes more inviting than Vorarlberg’s sub-zero December temperatures. “I want to get to know different countries, different people and, in the end, get to know myself,” said Eva, who described herself as impatient and restless. Time on the road, she hoped, would help her gain some peace of mind as well as teach her new tricks of the trade.

The tradition dates back to the Middle Ages, when craftsmen – carpenters, cabinetmakers, joiners, stonemasons, goldsmiths, even bakers – left their hometowns to learn other ways of doing their work and look for job opportunities abroad. In Vienna, the Stock im Eisen still bears testimony to the practice: Up until the late 19th century, travelling locksmiths passing through the city struck a nail into the tree-trunk still on display at the corner of Graben and Kärtner Straße in the 1st District.

The journeyman tradition is preserved in Germany and France. Every year, a handful of young people from these countries set out on this journey of a lifetime. During their time on the road, they are not allowed to come within 50 kilometres of their hometown, or possess more than they can carry. They must be under 30, have no debts or children, and must have finished their apprenticeship, which has usually lasted three years. Finally, the travellers are obliged to follow a simple but effective moral compass: Their behaviour should ensure that every subsequent journeyman coming to the same place will be welcomed.

Still Eva, a gardener, is atypical. Most traveling craftspeople are men, and many today are carpenters, working their way from one construction site to the next, according to CCEG. And while hard numbers are elusive, experts say that the craftspeople on the road are becoming fewer each year. The trend reflects the fate of Germany’s classical crafts sector at large. Fifteen years ago, there were some 140,000 construction-related craftsmen in training; by 2009 the figure was half that, according to the German Confederation of Skilled Crafts (ZDH).

German travelling crafts(wo)men uphold a centuries-old tradition

Downhill road

The reasons behind the decline are manifold, says Christian Sperle from the ZDH.

The construction sector boomed after Germany’s reunification in 1990, when the eastern part of the country was in need of a new infrastructure. Hoping for employment, the number of young people starting apprenticeships surged. At the same time, as eastern German infrastructure has caught up with the western standard, the demand for new construction has dried up. In addition, shrinking birth rates and easier access to higher education have meant apprenticeships have lost much of their popularity.

“We have the situation today that many companies cannot find young people who want to work in skilled crafts anymore,” Sperle noted. “We have training placements in companies, but we do not have the young people anymore.”

This is quite different from Spain, for example, where willing apprentices abound and there are few companies that can take them in. This has led to some cooperation between the countries, although exchange programmes remain small.

“What we don’t do is go to other countries and recruit young people,” Sperle affirmed. “The other countries are also experiencing demographic decline, and they need their young people. So it is a very hot political issue.”

Women on the march

The demographic decline, on the other hand, is opening doors for women. Ten years ago, companies might have turned women away in the belief that the training was too tough for them; today they are given a chance. So the number of women in the crafts sector – which encompasses some 100 professions – is growing, albeit slowly. Today they make up 26% of all apprentices, compared to some 24% in 2002. While stereotypically “feminine” trades, such as hairdressing, still predominant, women are also gaining ground in conventionally “masculine” professions like cabinet- or violinmaking. So craftswomen are increasingly encountered on the road, although even today few journeymen’s associations accept them, invoking traditional statutes barring women.

Sperle was hopeful that an on-going advertising campaign by the Confederation for Skilled Crafts would help make the crafts attractive again for young people, who are often fearful of unstable and underpaid employment.

For Kai Twieling, 30, however, there is nothing he would rather do than work on a construction site. “You are outside the whole day, working with wood – it’s very nice,” he ventured.

“I decided to become a carpenter because I thought only carpenters could go on this journey” – “auf der Walz”, as the tradition is known in German. Twieling works for a construction company in Vienna, where he’s been living since finishing his four-year stint on the road. He also serves as the contact person for other journeymen and women who pass through Vienna.

Twieling’s name is on a secret list of places and contacts handed out to every traveller when he or she sets out. The list also features Windhoek, Namibia, where Twieling spent six months building a hotel with 15 other journeymen fleeing the European winter.

Sketch of two people hiking

Ludwig Richter's 19th-century etching Wanderschaft (Wanderings) | Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The freedom to leave

So what motivates today’s Wandergesellen to dedicate so much time to vagabonding, relying on the kindness of strangers for their next meal or a job?

“You don’t possess anything, and hence there is nothing possessing you,” reasoned Marco Markgraf, a former wandering craftsman and now a volunteer at CCEG. “So you are free! No apartment you need to pay for, no phone, no car. And you are free to go wherever and whenever you want.”

Being “auf der Walz” is also one of the rare ways for young craftspeople to try out as many as 20 different companies without their CV looking strange to future employers. “People who undertake this journey love their work and want to see how else it can be done,” Markgraf explained.  And if one of the companies treats them badly, they can pick up their stick and leave. Otherwise travellers can resort to an age-old rule of thumb to gauge when it is time to move on:

“If the neighbours’ dogs stop barking at you, you’ve been around for too long.”

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