www.latimes.com/templates/misc/printstory.jsp?slug=la%2D000020087mar19 March 19 2002
COLUMN ONE Workers Born to Wander CRAFTSMEN IN GERMANY FOLLOW A CENTURIES-OLD TRADITION BY GOING ON THE ROAD TO FIND JOBS. WITH UNEMPLOYMENT HIGH, THEIR NUMBERS ARE RISING. By CAROL J. WILLIAMS TIMES STAFF WRITER 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 tools. 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 generations. "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 Cologne. 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 chamber. 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 growth. "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."