Sebastian Wittstock was a most unusual visitor to the Valley in January 2017. (Lexi Bainas/Citizen)

Year in Review: His ‘journey’ brought him from Germany to the Cowichan Valley

Sebastian Wittstock is following an age-old tradition among German craftsmen: hitting the open road

One of the most memorable stories of the year was the appearance, in early January, of a strangely-costumed German man in the Cowichan Valley.

His name was Sebastian Wittstock, and he was on a journey of discovery, following a trail blazed by eight centuries of his country’s craftsmen before him.

Wittstock was actually a 34-year-old “journeyman”: a special breed of worker that follows up a successful apprenticeship by going “auf der walz” — waltzing off on the open road, or as they call it: Matilda. Yes, that famous old Australian song, ‘Waltzing Matilda’, is all about an age-old European tradition carried south of the equator.

It’s all about finding yourself while plying your trade.

“Once you finish your four years of training, you can do this for three years and a day. It helps you develop social skills as well. It’s very valuable. What I also get out of it is my journeybook,” he said, during a chat with the Citizen in a Glenora workshop.

That journeybook keeps track of all the jobs he does along the way while he’s traveling. As a journeyman his task is to travel from place to place, seeking work in his trade, learning new skills and sharing his own along the way.

The journey is usually completed before the tradesman is 30, but Wittstock was a bit late starting.

“I kept putting it off, but then I realized it’s now or never,” he said.

The idea is that the journeyman will enter a community and then approach a master craftsman in his field to see if there is any work he could do. That way he earns enough to travel to the next spot. It’s a tradition that’s been going on since the middle ages in Germany.

Wittstock comes from Bavaria in southern Germany and has completed most of his travelling in Europe.

“But, it was always a big dream of mine to come to Canada,” the furniture/cabinet maker said.

Flying to Canada in September, he landed in Calgary and then travelled through the Rockies to the coast, making his way to Vancouver Island where he was planning to meet up with a friend: Cari Burdett of the Cowichan Valley.

While visiting her and traveling around the Valley, he happened to stop at the cafe at Alderlea Farm on Glenora Road and saw the sign for Michael Moore’s Fine Woodworking next door.

He went over and knocked on the door and discovered that Moore had encountered the journeyman phenomenon during a trip to Germany and knew exactly what Wittstock was when he saw him in his uniform.

His uniform?

Yes. Every trade that decides to waltz out onto Matilda has a special costume they wear. Wittstock’s is thick, black corduroy reinforced with leather. It includes a hat, a vest, a jacket and trousers for more formal occasions and a more rough and tumble outfit for working.

His clothes, along with a sleeping bag, a book, and a staff are pretty much all he’s allowed to carry in the one travel pack he can take with him.

“You really look at what you want to carry in that pack,” he laughed. “But it shows you that by living in that level of simplicity, you don’t need much space to live. And in summertime, you can sleep outside.”

Only a small percentage of apprentices decide to take on the journeyman experience but before they do, they have to pass through trials.

Receiving an earring that includes a token of the trade is the final commitment. And it is a commitment. The earlobe is held over a board and the earring is hammered through it.

“Yes, they ‘nail’ you with it,” he said. “Then you become a journeyman.”

The hat and stick announce that he’s received the freedom of the road and can travel about, unlike the apprentices of 800 years ago who were bound to their masters.

There is much tradition in his costume. The buttons on his cuffs, vest and jacket indicate three years of journeying, six days a week of labour and eight hours of work a day.

Wittstock went to a tailor who specializes in these uniforms and had his custom made.

“I carry the responsibility of this uniform; I represent myself, but I also pave the way for journeymen after me. You have to step into those shoes, you have to behave in an honest way, take the responsibility. It forms who you are, it becomes part of you,” he said.

Wittstock himself traveled with an experienced journeyman for two months before setting out on his own and he hopes to be able to offer that opportunity to another craftsman.

“If I find someone else, I’ll do the same,” he said. “That’s how it continues.”

When a journeyman is “auf der walz”, he cannot pay for travel so Wittstock has ended up hitchhiking a lot.

“You really get to meet people that way. The costume is a conversation starter. People see you and wonder who you are. But they are great. Sometimes they will ask you in for a meal or even to stay overnight.”

Wittstock was delighted to find a craftsman who needed few explanations.

“He showed me his shop; it’s very similar to the shop I worked in at home,” he said. “Michael’s very skilled, a master.”

“There is a lot of craft happening in this shop. I feel very lucky to have been able to work here and Michael was happy to have a skilled craftsman come.”

He worked with Moore doing a variety of tasks for one and a half months and at the end of December was preparing to hit the road again, this time for California.

While in the Cowichan Valley, Wittstock was able to enjoy some superb autumn weather, see the salmon run, and learn that Duncan and its environs are “very diverse”.

He was also able to borrow a motorbike from a friend in Victoria and make his way out to see the Kinsol Trestle: a great sight for someone whose life involves fine woodwork.

“I really enjoyed getting out in nature here. It’s beautiful,” he said.

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