Pål Bjarne Johansen has had a truly varied career: He served with the Norwegian King's Guard; studied informatics; and started his own outdoor-equipment company. His latest adventure is sharing his love of travel and his country's culture with travelers on our Best of Scandinavia tour. We asked Pål a few questions about his various adventures, his penchant for sailing, and his favorite experiences on tour.
Pål, tell us a bit about your background.
I grew up in the Norwegian countryside, close to Oslo, spending my time fishing, hiking, and in general a lot of outdoor activities. I was bit by the travel bug in my early 20s after a three-month trip to Brazil, South Africa, and Thailand. It led to several rail trips in Europe, and I've been back to Latin America numerous times for travel, volunteer work, and visiting friends. I've always been interested in languages and other cultures, and eventually I learned to speak Spanish.
I went to the University of Oslo and studied informatics. I worked for a big corporation in Oslo for a couple of years before I decided to start my own business with a friend of mine. The idea was to sell outdoor equipment (kind of like REI) through an online store and a physical store. I did that for some years until I felt I needed other challenges and had the urge to travel more and meet more people.
How did you become a guide?
When I was in my late 20s, I was trying to figure out what to do next. My mother had just come back from a guided trip to Cuba, and she had really liked it and bragged about how good the guide had been. She said, "You should try to be a travel guide, Pål." And so I did. Without any guide experience, I kind of "hacked the system" and managed to get an interview with a Scandinavian travel company, who, because of my knowledge of Spain and Spanish culture and history, sent me there to take Scandinavians around. The rest is history!
What do you like about traveling with Rick Steves tour members?
Rick Steves tour members are what we in Norway would call "happy salmons" — cheerful people! And they are interested in local culture and customs and come with an open mindset. I also enjoy that I sometimes have tour members of Scandinavian descent who share with me how they grew up in a "Scandinavian" influenced family/community.
What have been some of your most rewarding moments as a guide?
For me, the biggest reward comes at the end of the tour when I see that all my tour members are happy about their trip and have become good travel buddies. That is what inspired me to continue doing this job. It's also rewarding to be able to keep in touch with some of them, and I have met several tour members when I have gone to Edmonds for the tour reunion.
What surprises Americans most about traveling through Scandinavia?
I think the food is a big surprise to many. Some think we mainly just eat herring, meatballs, and lutefisk, but Scandinavian cuisine has developed a lot over the last few decades and is actually considered top-class in Europe. I've had tour members that have been on several Rick Steves tours comment that on the Best of Scandinavia tour they've had some of their best food experiences.
Another thing is the political scene and our social welfare system. Some have a stereotypical view that we pay huge amount of taxes and that our government has too much to say in our lives. This is partly not correct, and the local guides and I try to provide a more accurate view of how our system works.
What's life like when you're not leading tours?
I'm a passionate sailor, and I have my own sailboat on the Oslofjord, so a lot of time goes to doing day-sails on the fjord or longer journeys down to Sweden and Denmark. In the winter, I like to do cross-country skiing, but to warm up I usually spend a few weeks at my family's condo in southern Spain. Scandinavians love Spain; it is kind of like our Arizona or Mexico. I also have a Canadian girlfriend, so we go to see her family now and then. I also just enjoy life in Oslo, it's a good city to live in, with close proximity nature and all the conveniences of a big city.
When you've visited Seattle for the Rick Steves Test Drive a Tour Guide event, did you have a chance to visit Seattle's Nordic Museum?
Yes, and I have to say I am so impressed by the job they have done on the new museum. The layout is great, and the information is very concise, correct, and not overwhelming. It's definitely a place I will be going over and over again. I have also been to the Sons of Norway lodge in Ballard, a good place to get some Norwegian waffles with brown cheese and chat with some ol' Norwegians or their descendants.
Tell us something about yourself that no one would ever guess.
I served in the Norwegian Army and was part of the King's Guard. Once, Bill Clinton was there to have an audience with the king. He stood three feet in front of me looking straight at me. An intense and memorable moment!
Here's what Pål won't tell you…but his tour members will:
"Pål is truly gifted as a tour guide. He is a fountain of knowledge, a master of organization, and a wonderful facilitator of group dynamics. He constantly surprised us with local treats! Most of all, Pål helped us experience Scandinavia on a personal level. We feel incredibly lucky to have had him as our guide. He is a treasure."
― Debby in Seattle, WA