March 19 2002

        COLUMN ONE

        Workers Born to Wander



  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 this
  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

  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.

  Many graduates of the walz run their own construction companies or
  workshops, providing a word-of-mouth network about short-term jobs that
  might interest the young peregrinators.

  Road Passed Through Russia, Japan, Canada

  "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 firm 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 solid 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," says Wiegman. "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."

  France Also Has Wandering Workers

  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.

  "It has a lot less to do with tourism than with furthering your education
  and experience and social skills," says Matthias. "What you come away
  with after being on the road and learning all these different ways of
  approaching construction is a sense of confidence. I learned to do a lot
  of things--put up a fence, build stairs, make cabinets and furniture--so
  I know I will always be able to take care of myself and my family."

  The wandergesellen are more skilled and often command better wages than
  homebound unionized workers, Matthias says. But he insists that there is
  neither resentment nor rivalry between the two groups vying for work in
  these hard times.

  "We play at entirely different levels," Matthias says. "Trade unions as
  representatives of employees focus on the material benefits accorded
  their members, whereas these are not important at all for craftsmen who
  have chosen the road over creature comforts."

  Those on the walz are forbidden by the centuries-old code of conduct to
  come within 50 kilometers--31 miles--of their homes, except in cases of
  death or serious illness in the immediate family. They also must wear
  corduroy bell-bottoms and vests, along with heavy felt hats that vary to
  identify them as members of a particular guild. White shirts, chains of
  metal badges from previous places of work and a single earring complete
  the signature garb, a uniform with minor variations for each skill but
  collectively known as the kluft. The outfit costs a stiff $600.

  When traveling between work sites, wanderers carry two items: a walking
  stick and a belted satchel, which wraps a bedroll, tools, clothes and
  toiletries in a cloth bearing the guild's symbols.

  "You have to decide for yourself how much other stuff you want to carry
  in the [satchel] besides your second kluft and your work things," says
  Jonathan Baum, a 21-year-old from near Frankfurt working on Wiegman's
  restoration project. "It would be nice to have a few books for the time
  you are traveling, but you have to balance that against how much weight
  you want to carry."

  Itinerants Keep Record of Their Work

  Another must in the wanderers' bundles are logbooks in which each
  employer and hostel manager records the youths' travels, noting wages
  paid and fees exacted for lodging. Although employers save on some costs,
  the wanderers are obliged to pay the same taxes and pension contributions
  as their more settled counterparts.

  Though older Germans recognize the wanderers and are often charmed by the
  endurance of their antiquated lifestyle, the near-disappearance of the
  itinerants during the latter half of the 20th century has made the sight
  of them cause for surprise--and sometimes alarm--among younger

  "Sometimes people are put off by our appearance," says Baum, recalling
  distrustful rural innkeepers who refused to rent him a room. But others,
  he says, are motivated by curiosity or nostalgia to give a lift to
  hitchhiking itinerants or stand them to a free lunch or a glass of beer.

  To be admitted into the ranks of the wanderers, craftsmen must have
  completed an apprenticeship and meet or exceed skill levels required for
  union membership in their trade. Because they are exposed to new
  techniques and work styles from job to job--no position can exceed six
  months--they tend to be regarded as the creme de la creme of each
  construction craft, says Claudia Crepin, project manager at the Chamber
  of Craftsmen, a liaison office between guilds and employer groups in

  Practice Goes Back More Than 700 Years

  The wandering tradition began in the 13th century, when European guilds
  were rigidly structured to ensure a good living for each town's resident
  master craftsmen. Before admission to the guilds, journeymen first had to
  leave their hometowns and place of apprenticeship to ply their skills
  from farm to farm and gather experience.

  "The guild masters controlled everything then, except the wanderers,"
  says Hans Mueller, a carpenter trained in East Prussia before World War
  II and the wanderers' de facto historian and go-between with the Cologne

  Trade union movements of the 19th century broke the guild masters' grip
  on urban employment, causing the wanderers to nearly disappear as workers
  found sufficient opportunities at home. Economic hard times after both
  world wars gave a short-term boost to the practice, as Mueller recalls
  itinerants willing to work just for food in the lean years building up to
  Germany's economic boom of the 1950s. But by the time of Germany's 1990
  reunification, the number of wanderers had dipped below 200.

  The renewed popularity of the walz is attributed not only to the slowdown
  in construction but to the highly regulated nature of the building
  industry in western Germany, which poses its own barrier to economic

  "I wouldn't have a job if I stayed in Magdeburg," says Schroeder, the
  roofer. "Hitting the road is one way of keeping your options open."

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