Saturday, January 16, 2010


I'd never heard of travelling journeymen until a day or two ago when our friends at Habitat Nursery in Liffey told us they have three German journeymen staying and working with them.

Journeymen are young tradesmen and women who, having finished an apprenticeship, set off on a journey to hone their skills and learn from masters in other parts of the world.

They have an ancient history, which seems to date from medieval times when workers travelled around Europe building the great cathedrals.

In Germany today there are apparently around six societies covering over 900 travelling journeymen and women from a number of trades.

They are governed by strict rules. They undertake to travel for at least three years and one day, and during that time not to venture within 50 kilometers of their home town. They are not permitted to use mobile phones. They must also wear a distinctive costume, which includes vest and hat and collarless white shirt, even while they work. They travel light, carrying all their possessions in bundles that are tied up in kerchiefs and suspended from long sticks, like characters out of a child's picture book. Each of them has a document, which they must have stamped by the mayor of every town where they seek work and they are only permitted to stay in one place for three months.

Their uniforms are based on ship builders uniforms with wide sailor legs. The vests' eight buttons represent the eight hours they work each day; the jackets have six buttons, one for each day of the week they work. The three buttons on each arm of their jacket represent the number of years they have undertaken to travel. The hats are a symbol of freedom because once only free men were permitted to wear hats.

The young men we met are helping to build an addition to our friends' house. They are paid wages that include board and lodging. Despite their medieval garb and ancient rules they listen to Triple J on the radio while they work, have a modern, open manner, and were happy to explain their lifestyle to us. The aim, one of them told us around a typical Aussie barbecue, is to make the foreign seem less strange and more homelike, and to incorporate the foreign into home.

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