Spezial-Ausgabe der TIME
Ausgabe August 2001
Taking it To the Streets
Germany's wandering artisans keep alive the ancient craft of the Walz

With its jumbled collection of rust-spotted portakabins, mortar mixers and rent-a-loos, the building site in Volgershall, a suburb of Lüneburg in Lower Saxony, is not unusual - except for the presence of a couple of odd-looking figures climbing over the plastic-shrouded scaffolding. Dressed in black bell-bottom trousers, white shirts, low-cut vests and large-brimmed hats, the men stand out from the rest of the construction workers like penguins in a gaggle of wild geese. These strange birds are traveling journeymen, members of an itinerant craft tradition that stretches back to medieval times.

In 1995, when he was 27, Richard Werner, part of the Volgershall crew, acquired bis certificate of apprenticeship as a carpenter. Instead of settling into a comfortable career in his home village of Gersdorf near Augsburg, Bavaria, he decided to leave home and family to embark on the traditional Walz of the traveling journeyman - a period of at least three years and a day during which young artisans roam the world looking for temporary employment to gather experience in their crafts. Though custom demands that the Wandergesellen follow a set of strict rules - they may not enter a 50 km radius around their home town or remain in one place for more than three months - more and more people like Werner are following the calling. An estimated 500 traveling journeymen, about 10% of them women, from some 30 crafts are currently on the move-almost twice as many as 10 years ago.

The origin of the Walz in Central Europe lies in the Middle Ages. From the mid-13th Century onward journeymen - forced to leave the city of their apprenticeship by increasingly rigorous guild regulations designed to secure the livelihoods of resident master craftsmen - took to the road to earn their living elsewhere and gather the experience needed to become masters themselves. The free trade introduced by the Industrial Revolution did away with the need for travel by the mid-1800s, so the practice gradually fizzled out. lt threatened to vanish entirely until, in the wake of the workers' movements at the end of the 19th century, a handful of newly established journeymen brotherhoods, called Schächte, revived the custom in Germany.

Reintroduced at a time of growing professional specialization, the modern Walz was intended to broaden the artisans' vocational and personal horizons. "By traveling, the craftsmen were supposed to leam new practical skills in their trade and to pass their own knowledge on to others," says Nils-Peter Linderoth, head of the Society of Honest ltinerant Journeymen Carpenters and Slaters, the first German brotherhood, founded in 1890.

After his six-year peregrination took him as far as Senegal and Morocco's Atlas Mountains, Werner became convinced that "the Walz is the university of the craft." During his travels he discovered that "each region has its own special carpentry methods." In the central German Taunus region, for instance, he learned the ins and outs of restoring half-timbered frame houses, which are unknown in the area from which he comes. In Denmark he helped put up tin roofs; in Spain, he roughcast, covering walls with finish; and in northern Germany, he mastered masonry. "l learned to use new materials, new tools, new tricks," Werner says, "and that there is a solution to every problem."

lt's not only the journeymen who benefit from their time on the road. Their employers, too, gain a lot. "The knowledge transfer works both ways," says Johannes Schubert, master builder of the cathedral at Xanten in North Rhine-Westphalia. "As a stationary business with long-term employees, we don't normally get much of an influx of new ideas. So when we hire traveling journeymen it's like a breath of fresh air. lt opens our eyes to how other people work."

The Wandergesellen are also attractive to many employers - particularly in small and medium-sized businesses - because they are looking for short-term jobs. The journeymen's flexibility is a rare quality at a time when rigid labor markets are one of the key factors holding back the European economy. "In the construction business especially, many jobs are of a short-term nature, so it's handy to find people who are willing to sign on for such a period," says Arne Jacobs, owner of a small workshop in Holzen, near Lüneburg, and Werner's present master.

Helping Hands: The Wandergesellen, above, work for a string of Masters as they lend their skills to construction projects. Carpenters Werner and Steffen, below, build houses in Lüneburg.

Given these qualities, a traveling journeyman's chances of finding a job in Germany's tight labor market are above average. As a result they garner a lot of praise, if not outright support, from business organizations. "Learning how one's familiar vocation is practiced elsewhere, acquiring social competence, coping with often adverse conditions and building a Europe-wide network of colleagues is what makes the Walz so attractive," according to Hanns-Eberhard Schleyer, the general secretary of the German Confederation of Small Business and Skilled Crafts.

Since they learn at least a smattering of several languages and acquire a familiarity with the customs of other countries during their journey, the traveling craftsmen are also considered exemplary Europeans.

"The Walz is a great tradition because it leads to a meeting of the nations," says Bettina Müller from the Foundation for Economic Development and Vocational Training (SEQUA) in Bonn. SEQUA is a non-profit organization that administers the European Union's international exchange project for journeymen, SESAM. Werner, who can now get along in English, French, Italian and Spanish, believes that "it is only by living and working abroad that you really get to know another people."

But for Werner - as for most of the other young men and women who go on the Walz these days - simple wanderlust led him to take to the road. "l was hoping to find ultimate freedom," he says, "and l did." The best days of his journey, he recalls, eyes glowing, were "spent rambling across country from village to village." Although the traveling artisans usually sleep in one of the lodgings maintained by their brotherhoods across Europe or in accommodation offered by people they meet, they frequently just throw down their sleeping bags wherever they grow weary.

The thrill of belonging to a close-knit, exclusive community also motivates many of the young jour-neymen to join one of the seven existing Schächte - two of which also accept women - and submit to their seemingly antiquated rules and regulations. lt's logical that the Wandergesellen should be unmarried and debt-free. But their old-fashioned outfits, or Kluft (modeled on the togs of 19th Century ship-wrights) make sense too. The wide-brimmed hat prevents dirt from falling into the eyes, while the flared legs of the heavy-duty corduroy trousers keeps shoes from becoming dirty. More importantly, the Kluft serves as a signal to fellow-wayfarers, potential employers and the public alike, and distinguishes the roving artisans from hobos and vagabonds. "People can recognize us for what we are," says Werner, "and that leads to greater acceptance."

The Walz leaves an indelible mark on the men and women venturing out from home. "It changes your whole world view," Werner muses. "Prejudices lose their validity, distances that once seemed endless shrink to nothing and material possessions become much less important." Certainly, the years on the road make nobody rieh. "We have a rule that says, "You leave with $2 in your pocket and you come back with the same amount," Werner jokes. When work is hard to come by and moneys tight, the traveling artisans may sometimes even resort to begging. Reciting a ritual formula - "With goodwill and permission, an honest and upright journeyman asks the honest master craftsman for support" - they'll ask butchers, bakers or landlords for a little contribution. They usually get it. Although they might not expect to come home as wealthy men, not a few Wandergesellen hope to find riches of another kind. "Naturally, we secretly dream of meeting a master with a pretty daughter," jests carpenter journeyman Andreas Steffen, 23, from Kall in the Eifel region of Westem Germany, who's been on the Walz for a little more than a year. For Werner that dream has come true, in a way. In Hamburg's night-life district, the Reeperbahn, the cheerful young man met his girlfriend, Wiebke, a 29-year-old nurse, in April 1998. The two plan to marry soon.

For Werner the most difficult time of his wandering years is still to come - going home. In early fall, he will finally return to Gersdorf and begin the staid existence of a family man with a steady job. "Many of us struggle with settling down again after the Walz," he admits ruefully, "and some never manage to make the break." For those who do, there are always the memories of what Werner calls "the best time of my life" and the nostalgic folk song recalling it: "Come, brother, the road is beckoning/ Those who stay home/ Are ready for the graveyard/ Single, free as a bird [we are]/ Faithful to an old craft tradition."

Career Paths
For more than a century, the traveling journeymen - successors to itinerant medieval artisans - have roamed the roads of Europe. Dressed in white shirts, black hats, vests and pants, they walk or hichhike around the world für a period of at least three years and a day, looking for temporary employment and hoping to gain new skills. Originally, only members of the building trades such carpenters, slaters and stonecutters used to go on the so-called Walz, but other crafts followed suit over the decades. Today even glassblowers and bakers can be found toting the traditional cloth bundle that contains toiletries, spare clothes and tools. Thus equipped with everything they need to live and practice their craft, these modern-day nomad make their way from job to job and town to town seeking new challenges. - U.S.