In 2015, I was one of twelve American contestants on the award-winning Norwegian TV series, Alt for Norge, also referred to as “The Great Norway Adventure.” Over the span of ten episodes, viewers followed a dozen of us Norwegian-Americans on our journey through Norway, where we were to dive into their culture by competing in a series of challenges. Ultimately, contestants are eliminated and the winner meets their Norwegian relatives that the show’s genealogy researchers have tracked down.
The purpose of the show is to re-introduce Norwegians to their own country, and to give all of us a sense of identity in teaching valuable things about our Norwegian history and background. For this blog post, I’ve pulled a few examples from the episodes, including historical facts, fun cultural traditions, and some of the linguistic lessons we filmed in Norway.A little background on me, is that both my parents come from Norwegian lineage. Native to Minnesota, Steve and Cordee married in 1983, but raised myself and my three siblings, Raina, Anton, and Nicolai in Pennsylvania. The side of my family that the show chose to track down was my father’s ancestry. This was very special for me, since my father died when I was eighteen years old. I heard about the show by reading a news article and created a video submission. A few months later I was selected as a contestant, and in April 2015, I and eleven others flew to Norway!
Week One was spent in the esteemed Lofoten Islands with the fisherman’s theme: “Rorbuer & Fisk.”
“Congratulations for surviving what the famous author Jules Vern described as the ‘most dangerous seas in the world,’” the TV Host, Henriette, exclaimed to us as we stepped off the large fishing vessel. Repeating the phrase and author’s name to ourselves, we thanked Henriette for the warm welcome… Each contestant knew we had to remember this name, profession and quotation, because from this point on, any fact or tidbit could be used as trivia during the team or individual competitions.
During the next twenty-four hours, we would learn other essential Norwegian phrases at Henriette’s seaside language school:
Ut på tur aldrisur // You can never go on a hike and be in a bad mood
De luctar pegnar // “Smells like money”
Or the line from Petter Solberg, a Norwegian Rally driver whose classic line was the epitome of mixing up false cognates: “It’s not the fart that kills you, it’s the bang.” Simply interchanging fort and fart was enough to get one lost in translation by accidentally replacing words like speed, bang, or impact.
But one of the main purposes of the show was revealing to the contestants who their family was, so as we strolled the paths on the cliffs to get to our “rorbuer” or fisherman’s cottage, each of us was given a picture of our ancestors and notecard explaining the connection we had to the land of our forefathers. Right off the bat, this was an emotional trip. Due to a tragedy, my siblings and I don’t have our parents in our lives, so tracing back our family tree was an enormous opportunity, not just for my sake, but for the sake of what was left of my family.
But in order to win the family reunion, we’d have to let the games begin. The First Team Competition would rely on another Norwegian fisherman’s quote that translated, “It’s a good thing we have the oceans or we would have to carry the boats.”
One member of the team was put into the boat, the other five hoisted the boat up onto their shoulders and carried it around a field. Scattered around were flat wooden fish with magnets for eyes. The fishing pole our team was using had a magnet in place of a hook. As we carried the boat around, the “fisher” would attempt to draw up the fish and describe the picture that was taped onto the fish. We had to, as a team, decipher which items were Norwegian and which were not. The competition was timed, and the first team to “catch” five Norwegian fish was the winner. Items that identified as Norwegian:
Cheese slicer, a Fjord, Preacher’s Rock, an orange with cloves stuck in it, Sølje (Norwegian silver brooch). Items that were not Norwegian: Danish wooden clogs, Polse (looked like hot dogs), Pippy Longstocking.
The Blue Team came out on top for this week’s challenge, though in the first episode, no one would be eliminated: we were all guaranteed one more week of the adventure! But over the course of the remaining nine episodes, contestants would be eliminated and sent home to the United States, until one winner remained and was given a reunion with their long-lost Norwegian relatives!
Week Two brought us to Telemark County, where we learned about some Norwegian Heroes and monumental historic events.
After extensive driving, we were dropped off in a remote area, each contestant carrying a hiking backpack with clothing and some supplies. Everything was white. Any direction you looked, there was snow. Walking away from the road was a little daunting, considering one side of the road had an eight foot wall from the snowplows and the other seemed to lead into a mysterious field. After fifteen or twenty paces, the road and the wall of snow had disappeared all together. While we walked deeper into the void of silvery mist, a row of items came into view. We squinted and ran towards them (as much as you can run across snow pillows) and discovered that they were skis!
Each set of skis had a contestant’s name on them, accompanied by a small zippered pack containing wax and other little tools. As people began peeling off one of the wax tubes and applying it, David called out, “Now, wait a minute; you don’t wax the entire ski, right?”
In airing the show, this is where they inserted a “fluke” sound effect to hint that something was not going to go as planned for these twelve Americans abroad…
The avid surfers and snowboarders were quick to laugh at David, saying, “Welp, not the top!” at which other contestants howled with laughter. Other remarks were, “The whole ski is going to be gliding across the snow, so I’m pretty sure it needs to be covered in wax.”
…And this is an aspect of reality TV that we would stay mostly oblivious to until its release: families across Norway gathered around their living room television sets laughing at the Americans who (besides other cultural norms) didn’t know where to put the wax, when Norwegians are proud to be “born with skis on their feet.”
After the ski wax debacle, we were directed in a letter from the host, Henrietta, that we would not be walking, but “skiing in the footsteps of some Norwegian Heroes.” A cabin awaited us just over a few hills. Now, if I took as long to describe this leg of the journey to you as it took us to arrive at the cabin, there wouldn’t be time for anything else, so I’ll let you use your imagination as to what twelve inexperienced cross country skiers look like crossing a frozen tundra. [Hint: there was a lot of toppling over].
Once we approached the cabin, we entered to find framed black and white photos of twelve Norwegian men. Each of their names was listed under their picture. On the table there were maps and old books, and another writing was discovered. But this was no letter from Henriette, it was a faux journal entry describing their living conditions for months, while they plotted “Operation Gunnerside.” These famed “Saboteurs” survived by eating hard biscuits, reindeer moss, and occasionally reindeer meat while preparing the Norwegian heavy water sabotage of Vemork during World War II. The attack was made in order to prevent the German nuclear energy project from acquiring heavy water (deuterium oxide), which would have been utilized and manipulated by the Nazis to produce nuclear weapons.
The first Team Competition was impersonating the Saboteurs in blowing up Vemork, which is recorded as the most successful sabotage in World War II. The timing this historical lesson was impeccable, as May 8th, 2015 marked the 70th Anniversary of the end of WWII, which fell during the week of our filming.
Approaching the challenge, we used our memories of hints Henriette had dropped to the best of our abilities; there were three stops.
Trivia – unlocking the padlock
Q: Which date did the Saboteurs blow up Vemork?
A: 28 February 1943.
Obstacle – Observing the rotation of costumed Nazi Guards and sneaking past them to get access to the building.
Trivia – Finding a key by identifying a photo with the correct Saboteur’s name.
My team won the challenge once more, and the elimination of contestants began. Gradually, painfully, and with an unfathomable amount of stress and desperation, someone was sent back to America with each passing episode. Being cut off from the rest of the world for the duration of the reality show had pros and cons. It was like living life from a child’s perspective again where you could be carefree and on a need-to-know basis. Each day was a surprise, and the way the crew engineered this show made me feel like I was a character in a storybook that came to life every time I turned the page! Weeks passed by with new information, and delightful connections were made for me with my Norwegian heritage and the culture I am proud to now call my own.
Filming on Alt for Norge was one of the most incredible ways I could have ever seen another country. But the reality check for me came at the end of every episode… Because when someone from the reality show bubble was taken from our group, the fast-paced world called the film industry kept going a million miles an hour. Endless hours of interviewing over the course of two months helped me process the adventure of a lifetime I was on, but nothing could prepare me for the jarring reality that a contestant eliminated resembles the grief that comes with the unexpected death of someone in your life. Reality shows can’t capture everything, but they know how to nail a goodbye.
Finals Week, episode ten, was when I had to say goodbye to the dream of being reunited with my Norwegian relatives. I was awarded third place, and given contact information for family members who live in Norway. With a full heart I can announce that, after nearly three years, I will be returning as a study abroad student in Oslo for Spring 2018. It is with anticipation I count down the weeks until I am able to finally be introduced to the ones I was so close to meeting just a few years back.
Read more about Thirty by Thirty on Thursdays here…
Keep checking CitizenPushpin to see the upcoming blog series about my Study Abroad experience!