- Associated Press - Monday, November 9, 2015

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - David Engen was wandering around Dublin in a jet-lagged haze a couple of weeks ago, seemingly just another American tourist seeing the sights of Europe, when someone stopped him.

“‘Alt for Norge?’” the Scandinavian stranger asked Engen.

That’s when Engen remembered: He’s not just another American tourist.

He’s a Norwegian reality television star.

Spoiler alert:

On Sunday, Nov. 1, Engen, a former Lutheran pastor from Minneapolis, was revealed as the Season 6 winner of Norway’s reality TV show “Alt for Norge” (“Everything for Norway” - the Norwegian royal family’s motto).

The award-winning series, also called “The Great Norway Adventure,” follows 12 Norwegian-Americans who fly to Norway and dive into their culture by competing in a series of challenges, and, ultimately, the winner meets Norwegian relatives that the show’s genealogy researchers track down.

“The purpose of the show is to introduce Norwegians to their own country, to give them a sense of history and place,” Engen says. “It’s like when you have kids and you get to experience life again through their eyes. It’s the same thing for the citizens of Norway - to watch our reaction to seeing Norway for the first time, the excitement of coming back.”

Engen is not the first Minnesotan to win: Beth Butala, winner of Season 5, is from Bloomington.

And although Engen won Season 6 - and the $50,000 cash prize that goes with it - Hannah Tjoflat and Taylor Randle, both from Minneapolis, also were finalists this season.

Engen’s road to “Alt for Norge” began more than a year ago.

“I heard about it through a friend,” Engen told the St. Paul Pioneer Press (http://bit.ly/1MClI1Z ). “She knew about it because her friend had been on it the previous year.”

Engen went online to watch some clips (at youtube.com/user/oconnorcastingtv).

“I thought, ‘OK, this is something I gotta try,’” he says.

The process involved a lengthy online application completed at home, a quick on-camera interview at the Mall of America casting call and, eventually, a flight to Chicago for a 20-minute interview with the producers.

And then, a phone call.

“Tell us again,” they asked, “why do you want to go?”

Engen thought about it and, in true reality television fashion, tried to answer as dramatically as possible:

“Because I have less life ahead of me than behind me,” he answered. “And going to Norway is honestly on my bucket list.”

The response:

“What if I told you could you could strike something off your bucket list?”

Engen was going to Norway.

Engen and the 11 other candidates flew to Norway in April.

“We met in Newark, New Jersey,” Engen says, “so we wouldn’t miss the U.S. as much.”

The six men and six women also included Jacob Uggerud from Alexandria and Quanzakari Dechiara Crillion from Minneapolis. The other contestants came from Chicago, Colorado, Washington state, Utah and California.

“Other than five of us being from Minnesota, and a couple of others with Minnesota links, it was a real diverse group,” Engen says. “One was a tattoo model from L.A. There was a Web graphic designer from Chicago. I was the only openly-gay-former-Lutheran-pastor-grandfather in the group, though. I was by far the oldest - I turned 60 over there. The next oldest was 31.”

Engen is married to Greg Murphy, also of Minneapolis.

Of course, the 12 shared something important in common:

“We all wanted to know more about our heritage,” Engen says.

It is a beautiful heritage - literally.

“You can’t take a bad picture in Norway,” Engen says. “It’s so gorgeous and pristine.”

In one of the early scenes, Engen and the other contestants cross that gorgeous, pristine landscape by sea.

“It’s amazing, guys!”

“We’re in Norway!”

“Can you believe this is where we come from?”

“I’ve been wanting to do this …” said Engen, pausing. “… I can’t remember when I haven’t wanted to do this.”

“My entire life has led up to this point,” said another candidate. “Coming to Norway is so important for me. I feel like I don’t know anything about my Norwegian heritage. I feel like a part of me is missing, a part of me is lost and I want to explore Norway and I want to soak up as much of it as I can into my soul.”

The Americans were based in the city of Oslo but spent about two months traveling around Norway - all the while as sequestered as a jury in a high-stakes trial.

“They took away our phones,” Engen says. “We had no computer access. But they were excellent at communicating with our families.”

The contestants weren’t just sitting around, though: Season 6, which aired on Sundays in Norway, included challenges involving “ski jumping,” says Engen, “cross-country skiing, camping, sailing, farm work, competitive hot-dog-and-orange-soda consumption, performing rock music hits on stage, language interpretation and quizzes on Norwegian dialects, religion and traditional foods.”

The series also has a bit of an Ancestry.com vibe, thanks to the production’s genealogy sleuths.

In one clip on YouTube, Engen is shown in a place called Gausdal, near Lillehammer, walking toward a stark-looking farm where his great-great-grandfather Ole Olson Hagerud lived with his family before emigrating in 1868.

“It’s just such a simple place,” Engen says, his voice full of emotion. “And yet it means so much.”

Moments like this, moments that show the power of Minnesotans connecting with their roots, is what brings the casting company back to Minnesota in search of new contestants.

“Season 6 features five cast members from Minnesota, which is the most they’ve ever had in a single season,” said Joan O’Connor, series casting producer, in a statement. “The Norwegian viewers really respond to their authenticity and vulnerability. They’re not in it for the drama or the fame, they’re in it for the once-in-a-lifetime experience of connecting with their ancestors in a profound way.”

In the end, Engen was the last American standing. The finale shows Engen finally meeting his Norwegian relatives.

How did he win?

“I killed off people,” Engen says. “Don’t tell.”

Seriously:

“It’s humbling,” he says. “I almost went home in Episode 6 (during a dialects challenge). I think my success is based on a mixture of luck, being on good teams and staying out of the most difficult individual competitions and the calmness that comes from being a little bit older.”

Who knows, Season 7’s winner might hail from Minnesota, too: Chicago’s O’Connor Casting Company is holding an open casting call Sunday, Nov. 8, at the Mall of America.

Being a household name in Norway is pretty exciting, although Engen needn’t worry about paparazzi trailing him the next time he visits his homeland. So far, Norwegians response to Engen’s victory, at least on social media, has been predictably stoic.

“He had a lot of knowledge about Norway,” wrote one commenter (in Norwegian) on the show’s Facebook page.

“Very good.”

“Worthy winner.”

“Congratulations.”

___

Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, http://www.twincities.com

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