The wander years

Johanna Röh is one of the very few women ever to take up the old German tradition of the “Wanderjahre”, a custom that even brought her to Mexico, Canada and Japan as a craftsperson.

Johanna Röh at the Craft Fair with Chancellor Merkel
Johanna Röh at the Craft Fair with Chancellor Merkel dpa

Johanna Röh had a queasy feeling. Just moments before, her friends and relatives had carried her with pomp and circumstance past the sign marking the city limits of her home town of Kassel. Minutes later, she was walking away from them with only a small pack on her back and a hiking stick in hand. The few items she had with her included a change of clothes, a toothbrush and a set of tools wrapped in the 80-by-80-centimeter cloth she had bundled on her back. No more than that. Not even money or a mobile phone.

Every step took her further away from the hometown where she’d just completed her three-year apprenticeship as a woodworker’s assistant. And as she walked away and her parents and friends called out their final best wishes for her trip, she was not allowed to turn and look back.

Not allowed to return

For at least three years and a day, she was not to return. She wasn’t allowed to. Johanna Röh had just set out on her “Wanderjahre”, her journeyman years or, in her case, her journeywoman years. She was even wearing the “Kluft”, the traditional outfit consisting of black bellbottom pants, a white, collarless shirt, a black vest with eight mother-of-pearl buttons, a black hat and a jacket.

“I was in the second year of my apprenticeship when I first found out that woodworkers could do the Wanderjahre too,” says the now 31-year-old Röh. “The cliche is that only carpenters can become journeymen.” She hadn’t originally wanted to become a craftswoman; she had more or less slipped into a woodworking apprenticeship, completing her Abitur (high school degree) along the way.

One year to prepare for the adventure

But then she found out that woodworking apprentices could also go “auf die Walz”, as the years on the road are also often called. “At that point, I knew it was something I had to do.”

Single, no debt, no kids and under the age of 30 – these are the prerequisites for being permitted to go auf die Walz. “The rules are firmly in place because the Walz is not designed to be some sort of escape from responsibility at home,” explains the woman from Alfhausen, a town just outside of Osnabruck in Lower Saxony. It wasn’t long before Röh also fulfilled the final requirement, which was passing her apprenticeship exam.

The young craftswoman spent one year preparing for the adventure, talking to journeymen who had already completed their Wanderschaft. Röh didn’t join any of the associations known as the Schacht, however. “Only two of those associations are open to women,” she notes. “So I set out as a ,Freireisende’, a free traveler, just like the journeywoman who mentored me in all things relating to the Wanderschaft.”

Customs from the Middle Ages

The then 21-year-old spent her first week on the road on foot with only a map to navigate. Her first goal was to make her way 50 kilometers outside of Kassel, an area she was not permitted to re-enter until the last day of her journey. Her mentor accompanied her for the first two months and introduced her to all the official customs, rituals and behavioral code of the Wanderschaft.

“Some of the customs have been passed down since the Middle Ages,” says Röh. But she’s careful not to reveal too much about them. Indeed, the customs are also a kind of code, a legitimation that a person is a serious journeyman. For example, every journeyman is obliged to introduce themselves to the mayor of the town they want to work in. “In this case, the ritual functions as a kind of passport.”

Röh took up her first position as an apprentice in a town near Regensburg in Bavaria. She walked part of the way there and sometimes hitchhiking or traveling by bus or train, which is only permitted if you’re taken along for free. In this case, she was forced to recognize that there are definitely regional differences within Germany: “People in Hamburg are very open to it, but it just doesn’t work in Munich.”

The next stop: Mexico

The young apprentice traveled almost exclusively in Germany in the first year of her Wanderschaft. “Your encounters with other people are very important, especially in the early days,” she admits. “There really is a big difference to what you’re used to.” For this reason, she took part in several gatherings and regular meetings with other journeymen in this phase.

After one year in Germany, she set off for Mexico. “I’ve always been interested in that country and its culture,” explains Röh, when asked why she chose that particular country. She didn’t actually work in Mexico, however; she limited herself to visiting woodshops and the like. “It was totally amazing to see how much people can achieve there with relatively little means.”

At a school of fine woodworking

The young woman with the ponytail and dark-rimmed glasses then crossed the border into the United States at El Paso. She was not permitted to work there, however: “It’s really hard to get a work permit for the US,” she explains, “especially when you’re doing a Wanderschaft.” Still, many businesses there were familiar with the journeyman tradition.

As she made her way along the west coast up to Vancouver in Canada, she stuck to visiting woodshops, where she learned quite a lot. “That’s the whole point of the Wanderschaft, to get to know the techniques used by others and broaden your own horizons.” By the way, Röh’s main means of transportation in the US was a bicycle.

She’d already obtained a work visa for Canada, having organized her first position at a woodshop in advance. “But after just two weeks, I was on the road again.” Journeymen tend not to stay long in one place, so as to avoid putting down roots. Among other things, Röh attended a course at a “school of fine woodworking,” which she found very exciting. “It was so different from what we know in Germany. The training was less a preparation for working as a carpenter and more a place to hone my skills in artistic craftsmanship.”

Read the whole text on The German Times website

Nina Kallmeier is a business editor at the Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung.

© The German Times