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German journeymen meeting in Bayern
German journeymen meeting in Bayern
Oliver Hollenstein

HANNOVER - It’s 2 p.m. on an early summer Wednesday at an Autobahn rest stop near Hannover, in north-central Germany. Robert, starting out on the last big stage of his journey, plans to hitch a ride to Cologne. He’s making an unusual exception to journeymen rules on this one — letting a non-journeyman like me tag along. Robert wears a broad-brimmed black hat and old fashioned bell-bottomed trousers, black vest and black jacket over a white shirt — required dress for members of the Fremder Freiheitsschacht, a brotherhood of independent wood craftsmen. He also carries the mandatory walking stick.

Robert’s Tippelei or Walz — names for the mandatory travel that journeymen must complete — has been going on for nearly four years. Journeymen must travel for a minimum of three years and a day without money. The main point of this is to perfect different craft techniques, but many journeymen are marked for life by the self-denial associated with going out into the world without a home, without a plan — and no cell phone.

Robert grew up in a little village in the northern part of the German state of Hesse. In his youth he says he was “searching,” someone who often got in trouble and was easily influenced by groups like right-wingers and punksters. And just a few weeks from now, he’ll be back in the hometown he was not allowed to return to during his journeyman days. He goes back “a changed person,” he says.

How it all began

After his apprenticeship as a roofer, Robert and a friend of his had planned to set off and see the world. But then the friend got his girlfriend pregnant, which left Robert on his own. He’d heard about journeymen at his vocational training school, and decided to go to a meeting. To qualify, you have to be unmarried and childless — and you need a sponsor. He asked a journeyman named Johannes if he would sponsor him, and the man agreed.

It’s 290 kilometers (180 miles) from Hannover to Cologne. “Maybe we’ll find somebody who’s doing the whole stretch,” says Robert. At 27, his face is still very young-looking underneath a full beard. As he approaches a couple at the gas station to ask them if we can hitch a ride, hands in his pockets, his lanky body and stride is reminiscent of James Dean. His black outfit is highly symbolic — black is for woodworkers, the eight buttons on the jacket stand for the eight hours of the workday, three buttons on each sleeve represent three years in apprenticeship and three years as a journeyman.

In contrast to the black and white of Robert’s clothing is his red tie. Besides being a symbol of the particular brotherhood to which he belongs, it’s a symbol of honesty. When they start out, journeymen don’t wear the tie: they must earn it by first passing the initiation rites and then with their behavior.

Robert’s initiation took place on July 4, 2009, at his farewell party. After he drank a bottle of corn brandy, four journeymen held his head down on a block while his sponsor Johannes took a nail he’d forged himself and hammered it through Robert’s left earlobe. After that, he was one of them.

Journeymen are not allowed to carry much cash, take public transportation or own a mobile phone. Walking and hitching rides is how they get around. And “sometimes it takes a little longer” to get a ride, Robert says. We’re still at the rest stop, and he’s been trying for 40 minutes. So far, 20 drivers have said no.

“Sorry, no room,” says an older man as he climbs into a black Mercedes station wagon in which there is only one passenger. “All full up, sorry,” says a young woman who drives off with the back seat of her VW Sharan empty.

Journeymen bundle their belongings into a cloth known as a Charlottenburger, Charly for short. Robert’s bundle contains a sleeping bag, a slate hammer, another hammer, a slater’s anvil, four pairs of boxer shorts, four pairs of socks, two T-shirts, bathing trunks, a change of trousers, shirt and vest and a hat. He’s learned to travel light — he started out with double as much but shed it along the way.

Love on the road

He recalls that on his first day as a journeyman he had a last breakfast with his mom, who fixed him cheese and salami sandwiches for the road. Once they set off, journeymen aren’t allowed to come within 50 kilometers (31 miles) of their hometown. Robert circled the area in red felt-tip pen on his map, and then drew a red skull and bones inside the circle.

Actual goodbyes with family members happen at the city limit, where the journeyman digs a hole 80 centimeters (2.6 feet) deep and drinks half a bottle of schnapps. He then buries the bottle in the hole. His family helps him climb up on the place-name sign, and he lets himself fall into the arms of fellow journeymen on the other side. They then set off, without turning to look back.

How did that feel? “To be honest, I was so drunk I can’t remember much.”

It’s now 2:45 p.m. A Dutch metals dealer on his way back from Poland says he can take us — not all the way to Cologne, but at least a little closer. This day-by-day existence, without a plan or any security — that’s the journeyman’s life. “It’s cool as long as you’re unattached,” Robert says.

And he was for the first month of his journey. Then at a punk festival he met Annett, a veterinary medicine student from Hannover. They talked, they danced. And the next day when Annett didn’t think she should be driving, Robert drove them back to Hannover. That's when they started dating.

“It’s tough when you can only see each other every couple of months, and you can’t phone or text,” Annett tells me later. Robert agrees. “There were days when I really wondered if I shouldn’t just can the whole thing.”

At 4:20 p.m. we're dropped off at another rest stop, but this time it takes Robert only five minutes to talk a guy in a Mercedes with leather seats into taking us.

“There are fewer and fewer guys like you,” the man says to Robert, who’s in the passenger seat with his hat in his lap and his walking stick between his legs.

Robert isn’t a big talker, but people ask him a lot of questions. How long you been at this? “It’ll be four years in a couple of weeks.” How many journeymen are there, all told? “Worldwide, around 600.”

Although a lot of journeymen lore centers on too much alcohol consumption and camp-fire romances, partying isn't the reality. Often, journeymen live for months in construction worker housing, and the standard rates they earn are recorded on their wage tax card. It used to be that work was the exclusive point of the journey when it was a prerequisite for being able to stand for the master craftsman’s diploma.

“You travel to work, you work to travel,” is the way Robert puts it. His journey has taken him to Denmark, Slovenia, Slovakia, Spain, the Canary Islands, England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Tunisia, Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia, Chile, Uruguay, Madagascar and Hawaii.

As a roofer, it’s often impossible to work in Germany during the winter. “So you work hard in Germany during the summer, save money, and travel abroad in the winter,” Robert explains. He says the poverty in South America has impacted him the most — seeing kids playing in garbage dumps, young girls prostituting themselves for a few euros. “That’s when you realize how good we have it here.”

Homeward bound

By 7.10 p.m. we’re at a rest stop not far from Cologne. An older woman asks Robert if we need a ride. She drives a silver Ford and is playing a CD of relaxing music. He gets comfortable, and quite talkative, and ultimately tells about the time that marked him more than any other as a journeyman: Spring 2012, when he became a senior journeyman and sponsor to a young man named Samuel. He had to teach him the rules, hammer a nail into the boy’s ear — and knowing that he had vouched for the honesty of his protégé somehow gave him the courage to see the experience through.

Our trip ends shortly before 8 p.m., near Cologne Cathedral. Robert takes me to the pub where journeymen meet up — a place to make contacts, find work and shelter. But there aren’t any other journeymen there. “Wrong day, guys,” the waitress says, suggesting we return the next day when some comrades were likely to be there.

Robert throws down his Charly and stick, hangs his hat on the coat rack and orders a beer. After the third one he starts to talk about going home. Does he want to? “Nah, it’s not really me anymore,” he says. “To tell you the truth, the idea kinda scares me.” A lot of the stuff that used to make up his world now strikes him as small-minded, he adds.

But a few weeks later, on a sunny Saturday in July, more than 250 loved ones and friends show up at the place-name sign in his hometown. This time other journeymen help him climb up on the sign, and he falls into the arms of old buddies on the other side. He digs up the bottle of schnapps, and the party goes on into the wee hours.

Robert hasn’t told everybody he plans to leave. That’s why he was in Cologne: looking for an apartment for Annett and him. He’s going to get his master diploma in carpentry and a bachelor’s degree in craft management. That’ll take another four years.

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