Gap year or wanderjahre?

Well the brother-in-law has left for Oz. Minor miracle too given the severe snow in Italy over the last week and the fact that he had to make his way to Rome to catch his flight out.

Roman snow

In the end, like a medievel wanderer, he literally departed for distant lands on foot, walking with his backpack the kilometre from his house down to the train station as the roads were impassable.

It vividly brought to mind an encounter I had in the same city – 20 years ago – which was to send me on my way to Australia. In more recent times it might be called a gap year, but the man I met described it much more floridly as a wanderjahre. The episode almost made it as a prologue to TWB. Here’s an edited version.

A year out of college, sitting at a bus-stop in Italy on my way home from another day teaching English in sweltering heat to quite uninspired students. Suddenly I saw a police car screech to a halt across the piazza and the two caribinieri jump out. They addressed a ragged group of men in rapidfire Italian that this was a piazza, not a campsite, they’d to move. “Se no, prigione, capisce?”

This was 1992 and all summer I’d seen refugees drift across the Adriatic from the war just 60 miles away in Yugoslavia. Out of work and broke myself for a while, I’d met them in the Franciscan soup kitchen in town. Serbs, Croats and Bosnians, all looking equally subdued, sat around the same table, grateful – despite their obvious enmity – for the simple, filling food the Franciscans provided. These men in the piazza looked to me to be more of their kind.

When the carabinieri sped off, their job well done, I turned to the men and translated. The tallest replied. “Bastard police, sure we have no papers,” he spat out angrily. “Sure we have to sleep here, we have no money. We have nothing except this,” he said pointing to a few small pouches and cigarettes on the ground. “We were robbed. They should try to find the real bad guys, not us”

He introduced his friends who, rather than being ex-Yugoslav refugees, were German, Danish and Swedish. The speaker, in his mid twenties, was the youngest and explained to me excitedly what had happened.

They had arrived here the week earlier, left their bags in the train station and went for a few beers. From the laughter of his friends as he said this I gathered it had been a big night and it was only the next day that they noticed their left luggage ticket had disappeared and that someone else had claimed all their bags and equipment in the train station. All they had left were the clothes they wore and the few things they carried. Since then the only possessions they’d acquired were three sleeping bags bought with money this guy’s girlfriend had sent from Munich now already very grubby and worn.

Medieval world

“But it’s ok. I work,” he continued. He helped the fishermen each morning at 5am carry the fish off their boats and in a week he reckoned they would have enough for the boat to Greece. “But where are you going?” I asked. Calmly, he replied. “Around the world”. I looked at their possessions and physical condition less than five hundred miles from leaving home and admired their optimism.

From Greece they planned to travel to North Africa, down to the middle east and then onto India and Tibet en route to Australia and New Zealand. Returning via Fiji, Hawaii and South America, they would then make their way back home to Europe.

Not fully convinced of their chances, I gently suggested that they might want to return to Germany, work for a while and then set off again in a year with money in their pocket. At these words, his manner abruptly changed and a glint of good humoured determination came into his striking blue eyes.

Middle age minstrels

“In my country, the Black Forest, we had a tradition in the middle ages. A boy would learn his trade in his village – I am a photographer [his camera had of course now also gone], but then he was a carpenter or blacksmith or baker. Before he finished learning his trade, he left his village with only his tools and the clothes he wore and for a year he travelled alone in foreign lands. He could accept no money for his work, only a bed and some food. Sometimes he had good times, sometimes, especially if he met bad people, he had hard times. But after this wanderjahre he returned to his village, his learning was over and he was now considered a man.”

He paused and looked towards the ferry building. “I will only go back home when I have travelled the world. I will only go back to Bavaria when I have become a man.”

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