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Travelling Journeymen Walz through Brisbane

Travelling Journeymen Walz through Brisbaneby Donovan Knowles
True examples of 'old-school' woodworking, German Wandergelsellen ('Itinerant Tradesmen') Götz Michaelis and Martin Wichmann recently dropped in for a visit at Carbatec Brisbane.

The tradition of the German Wandergelsellen (lit. 'Itinerant Tradesman' or 'Travelling Journeyman') can be traced back to the Middle Ages when it was deemed necessary for craftsmen who had completed their training to take their trade on the road. In German this was described as 'auf der Walz' (lit. 'that roll up'), and they took only what they could carry in a roll or swag, including tools, a change of clothes and other necessities. Primarily these journeymen went out to acquire new skills and to pursue work in regionally fluctuating labour markets. The traditional 'Walz' of the journeyman lasted at least three years and one day. Never staying longer than three months in one place, their travels took them all over Europe. The tradition waned after the introduction of free trade during the Industrial Revolution and nearly vanished altogether until the workers' movements at the end of the 19th century prompted the revival of the custom in Germany through newly established journeyman guilds. It wasn't until the 1980s that new, more progressive guilds admitted women for the first time, and an increasing number of journeymen who hit the road were not bound to a guild at all.

Today, those who take on this voluntary extension of their training do so with the same motivation as their predecessors: not being content with the idea of settling into a comfortable, static career, he or she roams the world looking for temporary employment in order to gather greater experience in their craft. The benefits of the modern Walz are reciprocal to both employer and employee. The journeyman brings fresh insight and flexibility, and in return he or she learns how other regions and countries practice their vocation, acquires social competence, learns to cope with changing and sometimes adverse conditions, and plays an integral part in building a network of colleagues throughout Europe and elsewhere..

Götz Macheaelis (26) and Martin Wichmann (25) are two travelling journeymen who have extended their Walz to the east coast of Australia. After meeting in a pub in Switzerland, these two adventurers who had already been travelling separately for over three years decided to travel together. They decided to head beyond Europe to Australia, having the benefits of youth and no entanglements. They set out on their Down-Under Walz about one year later after securing necessary guild contacts.

Götz has been on his quest for four years and three months while Martin has been on his for three years and ten months. Götz is a cabinetmaker by trade while Martin is a carpenter. When asked when they will finish their journey, Martin says that will return home in October 2010, while Götz hasn't decided. "Probably after travelling to New Zealand for three months, maybe. We love the travelling and learning different ways of undertaking jobs, as well as meeting new people all the time."

Their quest for learning has seen them travel to numerous western countries, including Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Austria, Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Italy, to name a few. Martin also spent four months in Brazil.

You won't have to wonder if you've seen them around. Wearing the old-fashioned uniform or kluft that was modelled on the attire of 19th century shipwrights, they're pretty easily recongnisable. Both at work and in social contexts, Götz and Martin enjoy the ease with which the uniform enables them to interact with others. The uniform - which is all they wear for the journey - is made from heavy black corduroy, bell-bottom trousers, white shirts, a low-cut vest and a jacket finished with a large-brimmed hat. Their ‘strange’ attire affords them a certain amount of distinction and retains some of the practical benefits for which it was designed. Most importantly it brings a mark of reliability, expertise and commitment. The kluft is only part of the seemingly antiquated regulations imposed by the guilds. These include the more obvious mandates of being unmarried and debt-free. Surely holding onto such long-standing traditions helps and motivates the journeyman travelling so far from home. It affords him with a sense of belonging to a close-knit and exclusive community. It reminds him of his purpose in joining the quest.

The life as a journeyman is an adventure in learning and development, expanding career opportunities and sharing occupational knowledge with others. Talk to a journeyman and you will sense the pride in his quest, which he views as an honour as well as an adventure. It offers the traveller and the greater community a level of insight and understanding only afforded by travel: prejudices lose their validity, distances shrink and material possessions become less important.

Today there are 7 guilds or brotherhoods of which 2 accept women members who make up 1 in ten of all the travellers(approximately 800). Martin and Götz are registered with the first and oldest the guild / brotherhood of craftsmen (Schächte), ‘Rechtschaffe fremde Zimmerer und Schieferdeckergesellen’, dating back to the 13th Century. Today it is not only members of the building trade who join the brotherhoods of journeymen. Other crafts have joined over the centuries and include pottery makers, blacksmiths, tailors and instrument makers, glassblowers and bakers. Toting the traditional cloth bundle containing toiletries, clothes and tools, they are equipped with everything they need to live and practice their craft; and, as they make their way from town to town, job to job, this modern-day nomad leaves an indelible mark on the lives of people in communities world-wide.