Minneapolis to Norway

Jeff Johnson connects with his Norwegian roots on Scandinavian reality-TV program “Alt for Norge”

jeff johnson, norway, norwegian tv, norwegian-american, alt for norge, mn invents, replace design, minnesota, people and profiles
Alt for Norge star Jeff Johnson

Photo by Joe Trelevnen, reindeer mira & yukon, courtesy of rentreindeer.com

Jeff Johnson owns Replace Design, a Minneapolis-based branding firm, and is also the co-author of MN Invents, a book about innovations from Minnesota. He appeared in Season 7 of the Norwegian reality-TV series Alt for Norge (“All for Norway”), which takes Norwegian-Americans to the old country and immerses them in its culture and their own family histories. The show aired in Norway last fall and can be seen online.

“I first heard about Alt for Norge from a buddy who was on Season Two. He had the most amazing experience, so every year he tried to get me to audition. But I have kids. I have a business. I was doing eldercare for my mom. There just didn’t seem to be a chance for me to be gone for 10 weeks.” 

“This year I finally thought, OK, I’m going to try to do it. There was a casting call at the Mall of America, which is a couple miles from my house. There were a thousand people there. It was—at most—a 5-10 minute test, but they liked it and they flew me to Chicago for a screen test. Then they said, Hey, you’re in. And I was like. Oh, right, I have to do this.”

“I’d never seen any reality TV show of any kind, so I didn’t really know what it was about. I was told that it can be very competitive, but for us that was not the case. None of the people on the show wanted do any backstabbing, and whenever someone had to leave we cried like a bunch of grandmothers at a funeral. I was not prepared for the depth of emotion that show pulled out of me.”

“I grew up in a rural North Dakota farming community. My uncle went to first grade not knowing a word of English. My father spoke fluent Norwegian every day of his life. Have you heard of the Laws of Jante? They’re a series of laws written by a Danish author about Norway in the 1930s: Don’t think you can teach us anything. Don’t think you have anything valuable to say, and Don’t think anyone loves you. It pervades Norwegian culture. On the show we had a ceremonial burial of the Laws of Jante. I was bawling my eyes out, because that was basically my childhood.”

“We had so many amazing, absurd experiences: Running with reindeer in the arctic; going through Oslo looking for the grave of Henrik Ibsen; cow calling in a fjord; trying to recreate an Edvard Munch painting next to his studio; recreating the Birkibiner (ski marathon) in 13th-century clothing; holding a robot baby we had to keep happy all night. Then one day, they put me in a car and drove me hours and hours and hours. They were very cagey about it. We stopped and they said, Get out of the car. Then they said, This is the exact spot where your great, great grandfather was born.”

“Growing up, we had lefse every year, and lingonberries, and I love lutefisk—I’m not kidding. But my [North Dakota] Norwegian experience wasn’t a fun, touristy, rosemaled kind. Norwegians come from intense deprivation, starvation, and isolation. After this show, I no longer feel like I have the right to judge my father or his predecessors going all the way back to Norway. I can see I’m a link in a chain that goes back to something I would never have allowed myself to admit. I used to be very deliberate in keeping my Norwegianness at bay, I didn’t feel like a stoic Norwegian. I felt like a crazy American making crazy things. But now I realize that you can be both.”