Author: Bernd Wechner
Published on: December 1, 1998
Imagine a pile of men, all dressed in white shirts, black cord(uroy) bell-bottom trousers and jackets with silver buttons, black top-hats, bowler hats or slouch hats and a golden ring in the left ear. They carry around with them a napkin filled with odds and ends with the four corners tied together to form a small bundle (quite literally a knapsack). Some carry it on a stick over their shoulder, or on a roll of clothes slung onder their arm and maybe a second knapsack and they look like they've walked out of a century gone by ... they walk the streets, slum around in the parks, frequent bars and sleep in fallout shelters or whatever else they find.
Well if you can imagine that then you've got a good picture of Geneva one weekend last September when the C.C.E.G. came to town ...
This wasn't theatre. It was a congress, that only convenes every fifth year somewhere in central Europe bringing together a very special class of Journeyman which otherwise never comes together in such numbers. You'd never be aware of them as rule, but they wander Europe, mostly by foot and by thumb, looking for work here and there, staying a few months and moving on, all the while dressed like something out of a circus ...
I'd never seen anything like it!
Walking the markets with my girl, we picked up Roland, one of these black and white top-hat touting wanderers and brought him home for tea. He told me the story of an organisation I'd heard nothing of, and kind of wished I'd had. A little crazy, romantic, anachronistic, traditional, interesting ...
The C.C.E.G is the Confédération des Compagnons Européens Gesellenzünfte, an unusual amalgam of French and German words trying to say something like: the Confederation of European Journeyman Guilds. They've been around for a hundred or so years it seems and they promote the worldly wanderings of Journeymen from all of the manual trades. That is tradesmen having completed their training (that is Journeymen) are invited to join the C.C.E.G. with a few conditions ...
Members are expected to travel for three years, working for no-one more than three months, never passing within 50 km of their home in all that time. They wear this black and white outfit, must wear a hat in public, and carry an earing, the hole being traditionally punched with a hammer and nail on initiation (a ritual avoided by the many today by discreteley visiting a jeweler before joining). Standard equipment includes a second set of clothes, and two knapkins with C.C.E.G. paraphenaelia all over it, the four corners of which they tie together to carry a few personal effects in, like a sleeping bag, their diary and log (mandatory) and whatever else fits in. They'll roll their second outfit up and hang the two knapsack from it somehow, carring the roll either slung under the shoulder on a leather strap or over the shoulder on a stick pushed through the roll. Once a jolly swagman ...
The Confederation has three member guilds, with some 500+ journeymen on the road at any time. That would suggest some 7500 odd members maybe (if members are on the road for three years, join at about 20, die at about 70 ... membership being for life). They are represented in most central European countries and equip members with a small logbook explaining the movement to would be employers, appealing to them to support the movement and offer some work, and complete an entry in the log book.
Members will often live with their employers or find some crash through contacts here and there. They'll recognise each other without any trouble and be recognised, although their numbers are small enough that in my seven odd years of regular European travel and living I'd not bumped into a single one of them before they descended on Geneva. They have a strong network of contacts of course and employers they'll refer one another to.
With only two sets of clothes on them, both the same, they work as the play, dressed like penguins. Cord is used because it's tough and lasts, bell-bottoms so that sawdust doesn't fall into their boots (many of their trades involving woodwork). The hat and earing serve as signs of companionship.
The underlying idea is to push young tradesmen out into the world, gain some experience, grow up, that they come home richer and more worldly than they left. It found formalisation in the C.C.E.G last century some time, before Interail and the back-packing boom, but are still around and active. To prevent members disappearing altogether on their travels they're required to report to their home country ever now and then. Given the forbidden circle of 50km around home I'm not sure how Luxembourgian or Belgian journeymen fulfil that mind you.
Anyhow, I'm keen to learn more about the C.C.E.G. and regret not having taking better notes from Roland, charged with aconfidence of being able to track them on the web or elsewhere. Thus far they've eluded me, but I'll find them yet. I know they're out there after all.
To cap the experience off, we took Roland out with us to dinner at a friends place. At the dinner table Jean-Marc mused apologetically about his surprise guest Manuella, whom he'd only met the day before so he couldn't provide much notice. "We can better that", we touted nodding at Roland in his penguin outfit, "we picked him up off the street not two hours ago ...".
The conversation grew. Roland and our host, Birgit, it turns out came from the same part of Gemany, around Nürnberg. Not only the same part of Germany, but the same area around Nürnberg. Not quite the same little village, but close ... and then they uncover a mutual close friend in the area ... they phoned right away. Everyone was a little moved at the coincidence.
We'd only met Birgit a few weeks earlier, and now were scooping up friends of her friends from a little village in Germany, and we were all in Geneva.
Footnote: The idea of wandering journeymen seems nothing new to many Germans I've met. In fact we picked up Roland because my cohort (from Germany herself) pointed him out at the markets and shared a good part of the story here. I thought she was pulling my leg, so she went and roped up Roland to explain it all himself. That got the ball rolling, and while it was all new to me as an Australian abroad, the Germans at least seem a little more aware of it, if very low on details. I'll endeavour to learn more about the C.C.E.G, its history, its rules and its size some time. I should add here, that the picture I've painted is my recount of conversations with Roland and I didn't grill him for details ... which I regret a little perhaps, but I'm sure the C.C.E.G will present itself again some time.