Journeymen find their way to Estonia

  • 2006-08-16
  • By Joel Alas

NOT FITTING IN: Christian, 27, and Matthais, 25, two journeymen from Germany, recently arrived in Tallinn.

TALLINN - Christian and Matthais each have one set of clothes: top hats, tailored vests and large corduroy bell-bottomed trousers. They carry their things in kerchief bags tied to long sticks, Tom Sawyer-style. Most importantly, they have an affable manner, which seems to attract everyone's good will. Even in Tallinn's Disney-fied Old Town, where they arrived last week, this pair looks out of place.

They are journeymen from Germany, travelling tradesmen who venture across Europe perfecting their craft. Theirs is a centuries-old custom, but one that is relatively unknown in Baltic countries, which until recently maintained a decades-long ban on journeymen.

"People always want to know who we are, what we do and why we dress this way," says Christian, the more talkative of the two. He has told his story a thousand times before, but he's always happy to share his unique way of life with anyone who wants to listen.
"I became a travelling tradesman because I didn't want a normal life. I was wondering what to do for a job, and I decided that this was the best way to travel and learn different things. People outside of Germany find it a bit strange, because of our uniforms. But it is part of a very old tradition which has been going on since the 1400s. We are part of a living tradition."
Christian, 27, is a plumber from Hamburg and his partner Matthais, 25, is a blacksmith from the Hanover region. (They only provide their first names. Journeymen dispense of their surnames once they begin their travels, a throwback to times when they were societal outcasts who required a degree of anonymity to survive.) Some governments even sought to eradicate the journeymen. Nazi Germany viewed them as verminous as Roma.

"It was forbidden a few times in history, but it never died out," Christian says. "The situation is turning again now."
Now Germany is the center of a mini-revival of the journeyman tradition, with seven different societies that sponsor them. Together they have dispatched about 600 workers across Europe. As economic conditions in Europe's largest economy begin to turn south, more and more young people are considering the nomadic lifestyle as an alternative way to work and see the world. France has a similar system, though their workers are known as compagnons.

Young men and women who join the societies have normally finished their apprenticeship years in their chosen trade, and use the three-year journey as a bridge to attaining their master level. In the past, this was the only way to progress as tradesmen.
The journeymen are required to travel for exactly three years and one day, and during that period they must agree to not venture within 50 kilometers of their home town. They must give up modern luxuries such as mobile telephones, and they are not allowed to pay for travel or accommodation, except in extreme circumstances. Instead, they must seek work from local businesses in exchange for their stay and passage.

Each journeyman carries a travel book which acts as his passport. In every town, they try and get a short audience with the mayor, who stamps their pages with the seal of the town. At one time, this served as a work permit.
Christian and Matthais were unable to meet Tallinn's mayor, but they did obtain the city seal, and this was enough to satisfy them.
"In Germany, we meet with every mayor, and they say several verses to us and we must reply with the correct verses. They take it very seriously."

Christian explains their outfits.
"This uniform has been used since the 1800s. It was originally a ship builder's uniform. We have wide legs, so no water can get inside our shoes. Our vests have eight buttons, one for each hour of the day we work. Our jackets have six buttons, one for each day of the week we work. The three buttons on each arm represent the number of years we travel for.
"Our hats are a sign of freedom. Hats were once only worn by free citizens. We don't take our hats off for anybody, because we don't recognize any government."

Their uniforms possess dozens of other curiosities, all symbolic and important. The outfits come in five different colors to represent the five different trade groups 's black for woodworkers, blue for metalworkers, grey for stone masons, red for painters, and green for gardeners. They possess just one uniform, tailored for around 1,000 euros. In their small bundle of luggage they carry five white shirts, which they regularly change and wash.
While they look terrific, Matthais says the clothes can become slightly uncomfortable. "They are too hot in summer and too cold in winter," he explains.

But they also become a second skin, and they define the journeymen and help them attract attention. This can be particularly useful when seeking assistance. People might not be inclined to offer a ride or a free bed to an ordinary worker, but a person dressed in medieval attire will always arouse interest.
So far their epic journeys have taken Christian and Matthais from Germany to Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Austria, the Netherlands, France, Luxembourg, Ireland and Poland. They also served a stint in far-flung Sri Lanka, offering their services to the ravaged village people in the wake of the tsunami that devastated much of Asia in 2004.

And now they find themselves in the Baltics, where journeymen were refused passage throughout the Soviet era. Even after independence, the Baltic countries kept their borders closed to many itinerant workers.
But in recent years, journeymen have again been venturing north. And with the impending expansion of the Schengen zone that will see the border checkpoints removed, their passage into the region is about to become even easier.
"The Baltic countries opened up to us when they joined the EU, and you should expect to see even more of us in the future," Christian says.

The pair even found evidence of journeymen visiting the Baltics in some of Tallinn's museums. They spotted symbols of the different journeymen societies hidden in historical paintings, something only another journeyman would recognize.
So what have they learned on their epic travels? Christian says his passage has given him a more positive outlook on the world and its inhabitants.

"You learn that people are good. The media wants to say that people are terrible, and that the world is a bad place. They build up an atmosphere of fear. We learn that people are good, and that the world is a good place. People are helpful, wherever you go.
"You learn you have nothing to lose, except your fear. If things don't work out for you in one town, you can just leave, and it will be okay."