I invited total strangers I met on the U-Bahn into my house and made them food. Then we made art together.
It might not seem like a big deal to you, but to me, a skittering omnibus of aggregated phobias, it was a big deal.
I was on the U-Bahn heading to ESDIP to teach my Hand Drawing class when a group of young people caught my eye. They look like cowboys in daguerreotypes from the Old West, I thought.
I kept glancing at them through the crowd. Wearing thick, homespun-looking clothes with worn leather trim on the pockets and cuffs, broad-brimmed black hats, and one gold earring, they were romantic and mysterious.
There were two men and a woman, whose heavy cord waistcoat had an embroidered shawl collar.
Their waistcoats and coats had rows of huge mother-of-pearl and horn buttons, mismatched and full of character. Their thick trousers had vertical double zips where the buttons on a sailor’s pants would be.
They wore pintucked white shirts of what looked like cambric, and scarves of rough loose-woven cotton, and heavy leather boots that had seen the hands of a cobbler.
They had walking sticks that were gnarled and smooth, like roots that had been polished. They seemed relaxed, at ease, comfortable with each other and the East Berlin night. I had to know more.
I wove through the swaying car and approached the oldest, a bearded and tattooed ginger.
I asked, as you do here if you are polite, “May we speak English?” He said yes, and words spilled out of me: “What is the story, you are rocking this amazing look, is it like cowpunk or something, are a you a troupe, what ARE YOU?”
“Oh no”, he said, “We are journeymen. For three years and a day, we must be within not a certain distance of home. We are gardeners and a joiner.” “A joiner?” I asked, amazed. “Like a carpenter?” “Yes”, he said, “We are craftsman on a journey.”
I desperately wanted to paint them. I had my sketchbook with me, and I showed them my U-Bahn sketches of a sleeping Russian teen, of a Turkish guy playing the banjetar. I had my Moo cards in the hot pink carrying case Daria got me and I gave them cards.
I paint people, I said. Would you come to my house and be painted and I’ll make you dinner?
They nodded consideringly, said they would be in touch, and debarked at Schlesisches Tor. I went and taught class and after I told my friend Skye, who was in the class, all about them. “I met these amazing people!” I drew the clothing of the ginger as best I could remember.
Late that night I got an email from the oldest journeyman.
We would like to come tomorrow night, he said in the direct fashion of Germans. I was terrified. I had looked up the journeyman tradition, and got my brain around it a bit, but basically we were talking about homeless strangers coming to my delicate sacred house of precious things. I muscled through the fear and confirmed. I offered to make some simple vegetarian food, which was a good plan as it turned out the fourth of their company is a vegan.
Skye came over for moral support, and brought peppers and onions.
I sauteed peppers and onion with chunks of smoked tofu, baked a dish of refried black beans (ordered from Amazon, totally unobtainium on the street here) with chipotles in adobo and olive oil, and made this no-fuss vegan cornbread.
I substituted full fat coconut milk for the soy milk, olive oil for the canola, white balsamic for the ACV, German “strong” 1050 flour for the all-purpose, and four tablespoons of date syrup for the sugar. It came out really well!
The journeymen arrived and we ate food together. They were intrigued by our weird house and I could hear them muttering, “Ah! Halloween!” as they looked around. I immediately knew that I had been right to push through my paranoid, everyone is out to get you New Yorker mindset and that these were truly good folk.
We talked of lots of things, had some tea, and then retired to the library to paint.
I didn’t have a canvas on hand and wanted to get as much detail as I could in the time we had, so I painted on cold press illustration board for the first time in at least twenty years. Boy howdy, I forgot how easy it is!! I made good progress in the amount of time my strength held out.*
After the painting, we hung out for a while and Ben, one of the journeyman joiners, pulled out a battered plastic Coke bottle. He had recently been in South America, in Brazil, living with indigenous people and weaving and building. He’d brought this bottle of scary indigo fluid back with him, through German customs. (Imagine being that unafraid of your government!). It was jagua, a traditional skin dye or tattoo pigment made from Genipa Americanus, which is an edible fruit.
I painted jagua tattoos on the journeypeople and myself as mementoes of our time together.
I took photos of their clothes so I can continue to work on the details of the painting, and I’ll be posting more about it.
You can learn more about the journeyman tradition here. Although the part about not using transit doesn’t apply to all journeyman groups, obviously.
This whole experience was so mellow and yet so fucking magical I almost can’t describe it.
I do know what a “big” deal it is. We used to call carpenters “joiners” in Scotland. They are on a mission?
they are on their Wanderjahre, except it is three years and a day that they cannot come home. They are charged to explore, learn, work in exchange for their food and shelter and a little money, and basically build skills and character. It is amazing.