Wherever you go, go with all your heart. –Confucius
"You shouldn't go," Molly says, ten minutes from the San Francisco Airport. Talk about terrible timing.
I pretend I didn't hear her.
"Hello?" She turns to face me on the passenger side, her wrath encroaching like a storm cloud.
"Eyes on the road, please," I reply, hoping she can't hear the tremor in my voice. "Sorry what did you say?"
"You heard me," she says.
There is no pretending now. Why didn't I take an Uber?
"We planned this trip ten years ago. Before I even met you!" I say, stroking her cheek to soften my tone.
She swerves into the right lane for the highway exit. This isn't the time to call her out for not using the turn signals.
"It's our dream to go to the European Championship," I continue.
She knows how much I love soccer. I watch every Manchester United game like a little fan. We never take weekend trips out of town because of my Sunday soccer game. She isn't a fan, but she goes along with it.
"But why go all the way to Europe just to watch two games?" Molly asks, her grip on the steering wheel far too loose for my liking.
"Well, it was all we could get from the ticket lottery. But it's more the experience of being there during the tournament,” I reason. "Two hands on the wheel, please."
She does a fake sniffle.
"It's all an excuse to party and hit on girls in Europe."
There it is.
"No way!" I yell. "Maybe my friends. The single ones. Not me."
She scans my face to see if I am lying; I hold the steadfast gaze of an innocent man.
"So who's going?" she asks.
"Justin, Brian, and DJ. And then Dave, Sho, and Kenny will join later," I answer.
"Hmm...I see," she mumbles. I can read the subtext—she isn't too fond of them.
For years, I had crafted a careful image of them for her. I had confided in her our secrets from primary school in Hong Kong. I had relived our shared memories from the soccer field. I had shared countless stories from our trip around the world when we were twenty. I had left out anything she might find salacious, controversial and disrespectful. Hence, she had known them as adventurous, loyal, and loving friends who had played starring roles in my upbringing. She had been excited to meet them in person.
All that came undone last Christmas when she visited Hong Kong.
We met up with the boys at a beer pong bar. Justin was taunting a timid college kid in a heated beer pong match; DJ was busy making out with his latest love interest, completely in his own world; Brian was never one to start a conversation, and neither was she.
"Do you really need to go?" she asks.
“Please don't make it difficult. I've to do this,” I add.
"I thought you don't even like to drink and stay up late anymore," she quips.
Pitted against my own words, I am regretting all the excuses I used not to hang out with her friends. They aren't complete lies though—ten o'clock is my bedtime these days.
"Don't worry. We're old now. I doubt we'll stay up past midnight," I say.
"Stay safe please. Don't get hurt," she adds.
I haven't told her about the bull run in Pamplona. I won't now.
"Did we have to get here so early?" she asks, rueing her Saturday plans that have been derailed by my three-hour rule.
"I don't trust Bay Area traffic," I reply.
The truth is tardiness makes me uneasy. Stressing about time is not how I like to begin my vacation.
Molly pulls up at the San Francisco Airport international terminal on a quiet Saturday morning. I sling my backpack over my shoulder and hug her goodbye.
"Okay, I should go. Can't hang out in the drop-off zone," I say, slipping out of her embrace.
There are no cars around, but I follow rules even when no one is looking.
"God damnit, Gerald!" she hisses.
“Don’t forget to feed Lupe,” I yell out as I walk through the revolving door into the terminal.
I will miss my little puppy.
When the hotel receptionist denies my very reasonable request, I reckon it has something to do with my see-through wet t-shirt.
"Sorry, but the reservation is under Mr. Wong," he shrugs.
"Yes, I know," I plead.
I slide my phone across the counter to show him the email confirmation. After three connecting flights, a bus ride, and a long walk in the pouring rain, I have arrived in Amsterdam at my hotel. Can I please just check in, shower, and nap before my friend arrives?
It's barely 7 a.m. With half-lidded eyes, he sizes me up. A giant puddle is pooling from my rain-soaked clothes. The wheels are dangling off my suitcase after the cross-town trek on cobblestone streets. I look like the boyfriend who shows up at the door in pouring rain to win back the girl.
"Only Mr. Wong can check in to the room," he says, picking at the lint on his sweater.
I thank him and walk away.
At the other end of the lobby, I ask myself the three standard questions before I do something bad.
Am I hurting anyone? No.
Am I breaking the law? Maybe.
Will the world's overall happiness increase? Mine for sure.
The receptionist picks up on the second ring.
"Hi, my name is Ger...mmm...Justin Wong," I stammer. "My flight's delayed. Can my friend check in first?"
The shower is just starting to warm up when the doorbell rings. I turn off the faucet and answer in my underwear. The opening of the door lets in a rush of cool air against my bare skin. The man before me takes his sweet time to lift his eyes from his phone. He scoffs when he meets my gaze.
The first thing I notice is the roller suitcase. I don't recognize the brand, but the logo looks expensive. The owner is wearing a graphic tee under a zip-up hoodie, Lululemon sweatpants, and glasses instead of his usual contacts. The bottom half of his face is pocked with stubble from three days of no shaving. His hair is long on the top but clipped close on the sides—a popular style among famous soccer players that requires biweekly visits to the hairdresser to maintain. At the moment, his hair is matted from a sleepless night on Cathay Pacific. Justin looks disheveled and rich at the same time.
“You made it,” I say.
Justin and I met in primary school in Hong Kong. Strangely, we became close friends only after leaving for boarding school—he to the UK, and I to the US. We both loved soccer and understood each other's woes of being from away from home at a young age. During those years abroad, we met up only during Christmas and summer. Through various messaging applications—ICQ, and later MSN, WhatsApp—our long-distance friendship flourished. The summer before college, Justin and I spent three weeks in Beijing training with one of the city's top high school soccer teams. It was an exclusive program, but my father knew someone who knew the coach.
“At the airport, pick up two boxes of 555 cigarettes," my father told me. "Bring it to the coach on the first day."
Every night after training, we stayed up in our service apartment slurping cup noodles and watching Hong Kong triad movies. From the street market in Beijing, we bought matching dragon-embroidered black undershirts like the movie protagonists.
Justin flirted with the idea of attending college in the US, but he chose London School of Economics in the end. He graduated with honors in Accounting and Finance. He also minored in "social politics," otherwise known as the drama among Hong Kong students in London.
"The politics in London is crazy," he has always told me.
When we see each other, we don't hug, shake hands, or fist bumps.
"Just dropped fifty Euros on a fifteen-minute taxi ride," he says as he enters our hotel room. "Amsterdam bay-gao expensive."
Bay-gao is Cantonese for "relatively." We use it in a sarcastic sense.
"I took the bus. Only five Euros. Nice Harry Potter glasses," I reply.
I like the vibe here in Amsterdam. People dress well without being pretentious. No prep school boys in loud colors. No meathead bros in small tees. No obnoxious haircuts clamoring for attention. Everyone is happy in their own skin.
Our first order of business is to decide whether or not we will smoke weed.
Leading up to the trip, Justin has asked me that question several times.
"I don't know. I'm indifferent. Let's decide later."
Though never a smoker myself, living in the US has changed my perception of marijuana. On the one hand, I know it's not good for you, at least when compared to exercise or fish oil. I once met a guy at a five-dollar Blackjack table in a small town in Nevada. His faded leather jacket reeked of smoke. He told us, without being asked, that he grew and distributed marijuana for a living.
"Weed is actually good for you," he preached, laying down two crumbled hundred-dollar bills before the dealer. "Before twenty-one, THC can harm your brain. But after twenty-one, smoking actually helps brain cell growth."
I looked him in the eye for five seconds, then slowly scanned the rest of the table for someone to call bullshit.
Believers will stand by its medical merits, but most people still smoke to get high. I have no issue with smokers, but personally I stay away from chemicals. I don't even take ibuprofen. Some people would call me au naturel.
On the other hand, marijuana's pervasiveness today has desensitized my aversion. In Asia, cigarettes are more socially acceptable than marijuana. In the US, it is almost the other way around. Most states in the US have legalized medical or even recreational cannabis use. It's almost no different to me than tobacco. In fact, cigarettes and I are mortal enemies; weed is my peaceful neighbor. When I was growing up in Hong Kong, we were preached that only bad people do drugs. I have come to learn this isn’t always the case. Is President Obama a bad person?
But in Asia, cannabis is no joke. Marijuana is mentioned in the same breath as cocaine and heroine. When you fly into Taipei, they always remind you that drug trafficking is punishable by death.
But that doesn't mean Justin isn't curious. After all, he is a bucket list person. Moral dilemma notwithstanding, marijuana, in a risk-free setting in Amsterdam, is on the list.
Seeing his struggle, I do what best friends do.
"Alright, let's smoke," I declare, absolving him from the guilt.
We find the nearest "coffee shop." I walk in like I own the place.
"Good day sir, we would like to smoke weed," I announce, trying not to sound like a rookie.
The owner sizes us up. "A joint or roll yourself?"
"A joint, please."
"Mixed with tobacco?"
"Nah, just weed."
Justin nudges me.
"Wait, we're doing it straight up?" he mumbles.
"Hell yeah. Tobacco is bad for you."
The store owner murmurs to his staff in Dutch.
"Smoke slowly," he says as he hands over the goods.
I slide a five-Euro note across the table, signaling I have had enough of his attitude.
"Hey," Justin mumbles, "can we have a beer first?"
There's a bar across the street.
"Hi, what’s the strongest beer on tap?" I ask the bartender.
He points to the Brand IPA.
"Two pints please."
I take a picture of the joint next to our beers and send it to our friends. The joint is an artifact of beauty. Cannabis is wrapped within a sheet white cone. The rolling paper was cut with machine precision. The mouthpiece filter ensures maximum pleasure and minimum harm. The joint is fitted inside a plastic test tube tapered to its exact dimensions. Even for someone who doesn't smoke, I can appreciate the artistry.
We clink our glasses. I take a big gulp; Justin just wets his lips.
"Ready?" I ask.
He’s not ready.
Ten minutes in.
"You know what I become when I drink, right?” Justin breaks his silence. “I worry weed will take me to the next level."
Justin is a violent drunk. Alcohol unleashes his WWE fantasies. You are not his real friend until you've had a taste of his Rock Bottom.
"I think weed will actually mellow you down," I say.
As he asks for more time to think it through, I flip through a newspaper someone left behind and find this ridiculous ad.
"This couple is offering their place for couch surfers," I say and begin reading the ad aloud to Justin.
– We are David (Dutch, 50) and Steve (American, 39)
– We are a gay couple, but you don't have to be gay to stay here. Just be cool with it :-)
– We are nudists, which means we are usually naked at home
– If you stay with us, you will be naked inside our studio as well. No exceptions and no sexual intentions, though 'sex' is not a dirty word in our house. IMPORTANT: please state clearly in your request that you are fine with being naked. Requests that do not mention that will get declined automatically.
– We host guys only
– We live in a studio, so there's not much privacy, but you will have your own bed in a separate corner of the apartment
– No fake profile names, no faceless pics, low-res pic or no pic at all.
"Hahahaha," Justin laughs.
"I'm sending it to my mom with the caption 'Arrived in Amsterdam needing a place to sleep. Found this nice couple.'"
Twenty minutes in.
Beer half gone. Some people decide to rob banks in less time than this.
Justin fires off an avalanche of texts to Vincy, his girlfriend, presumably on the forbidden fruit he is about to taste.
I decide to tell Justin a story.
"I once knew a German girl, Andrea. She had done almost every drug—acid, MDMA, Molly, marijuana...you name it. So I asked her where it had all begun. She said when she was traveling in Australia, she and a few hippy friends found this rundown house and decided to crash it. In there, her friends introduced her to a whole bunch of drugs. Then the cops showed up."
"Shit, did they get in trouble?" Justin asks.
"No! She said since the owner didn't really care, the cops couldn't do anything about it."
Justin starts laughing.
"I know. I couldn't believe it. A girl breaks onto private property to do drugs, people turn a blind eye. I ran a red light in Las Vegas on an empty street, I got a ticket?' Are you kidding me?" I scream.
Thirty minutes in.
For a narcissist like Justin, he must be aware that this indecision is very unattractive.
Your boyfriend (shaking my head), I text Vincy.
Forty minutes in.
In our twenties, Long-lun, our codename for Long Island Iced Teas, gave us strength to talk to girls. At thirty, IPA's will soon light Justin's first joint. What would we do without alcohol?
Fifty minutes in.
"Don't you find it ironic that the front of your shirt says 'Dope?'" I scoff, astonished it has taken me all morning to spot the irony.
He laughs a helpless laugh. "The problem is weed is too accessible, man. If I like it, I'll be hooked."
I signal for another beer and leave him to settle his own conflict.
One hour in.
I have many choice words for Justin, none of which can be shared here.
One hour fifteen minutes in...
"If I had recorded all this on time lapse, we would probably see your beard grow."
One hour twenty-five minutes in.
"Okay, I'm ready," Justin declares with more flair than Lebron James's infamous The Decision.
"Okay, let's do it." I have fallen asleep at the table. For a moment, I thought I would die in this cafe of old age.
"Wait, wait, let's go back across the street to the coffee shop. It's more authentic that way."
It takes every ounce of my self-restraint not to punch him in the face.
The coffee shop has emptied out. Only a young couple is sitting outside with their luggage. I doubt they debated an hour before puffing away.
And so we light it up.
We pass the joint back and forth like two kindred hearts. I feel like the proverbial bad friend holding Justin’s hand as we venture into the world of narcotics. I don’t smoke, but I find marijuana aromatic. It brings back memories of my college fraternity house. Yes, I also subscribe to Playboy for the articles.
We notice no change after five minutes.
"When are you supposed to feel something?" I ask the shopkeeper.
"Mmm..." she looks at her watch, "right about...now!"
We carry on, keeping conversation to a minimum in search of the first sign of "high."
"Bro, have you ever seen the way you smoke?" he asks.
"No, I don't smoke. Remember?"
"When you inhale, you look like a drag queen."
"Good to know."
"Also, you're not inhaling hard enough. No wonder you never got high."
I have smoked twice in my life. The first time I split a joint in a fraternity house basement in Montreal. The second time was at our own fraternity library. I was elected assistant house manager, and tradition required that I take a hit off a five-foot bong. Both times I coughed my lungs out but felt nothing.
"You smoked before?" I ask.
"Cigarettes when I was sixteen. I did it for six months for fun."
Yeah right. I'm sure he did it for the looks, and to pick up college girls.
We burn through another joint. I walk out of the coffee shop sober as a priest. For a brief while, there was a faint tingling in my legs, but the hysterical laughter I was longing for never arrived. Even humming to Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds” fails to unlock its potency.
"I'm not feeling shit," Justin says.
After our unsuccessful attempt to get high, we walk to a restaurant Justin has earmarked from his research. Pancakes Amsterdam is famous for its authentic sugary and savory Dutch pancakes.
"Okay, I'll order for both of us," Justin says, pulling up his notes.
These pancakes are huge, the size of a dinner plate. First to arrive is a bacon, mushroom, and pepper pancake.
"It tastes like a creamier version of choy-bo-chao-dan," I say, referring to the Chinese omelette with preserved turnip my grandma likes to make. It is good and hearty but not remarkable.
"Egg and pancakes are completely different things," Justin says. "I brought you here to eat authentic Dutch food and all you are thinking is choy-bo-chao-dan."
The second dish looks more promising— a crisp, buttery pancake, with red strawberry jam swirls all around and three thick blocks of brie melted on top. You can never go wrong with melted brie.
I take a bite. I pause and look over to Justin.
"Oh my god!"
The richness of flavors caught me completely by surprise. The ingredients complement each other perfectly. It is a dish to die for, but you don't want to eat it every day.
Over Dutch pancakes, Justin and I catch up on life. I tell him about my puppy Lupe. He mentions an ex-girlfriend competing for this year's Miss Hong Kong.
"How do you feel about that?" I ask.
His exaggerated eye roll says it all.
After college Justin returned to Hong Kong and became something of a socialite, making friends and frenemies across many circles. Meanwhile, my first job brought me to suburban Upstate New York before a later move to California. We are as different in many ways as we are similar in others.
"Are the boys excited to come?" I ask, referring to Brian, DJ, Sho, Dave and Kenny, who will be joining us soon.
"Em...yeah," he says, his tone suggesting that I've asked a stupid question.
I'm excited to see them too.
After three days in Amsterdam, Justin and I will head to Lille to watch a European Championship group stage game. Then our journey continues in France where Brian and DJ will join up in Paris. We four will rent a car for a whirlwind tour of Lyon, Monaco, and Saint Tropez. In Marseille, Kenny, Dave, and Sho will join the group for the Quarter-Final match. All seven of us will travel Barcelona, Ibiza, Pamplona and Madrid for an epic finale. I get goosebumps just thinking about it.
In an ultimate high-risk, low-reward move, I also invited my family to various portions of the trip.
"So your mom is really joining us?" Justin asks. "You sure you want her to see us in beast mode?"
"Obviously not the drinking and clubbing," I say. "We have extra tickets to the Quarter-Final in Marseille so I asked her."
"What about your aunt and cousin? Don't they live in the US?" he asks.
Our plan is to spend four epic nights in Ibiza. But because Ibiza villas are rented by the week, it would mean letting three nights go to waste. So I invited my mom, my brother Clement, my aunt and my cousin Virginia to stay there for the remainder of the week. They were excited about the idea and planned a mini European getaway around it.
“My aunt took care of me during boarding school and college,” I reason.
Every semester, she drove me to and from school. When I visited her house during breaks, she did my laundry and cooked. I wanted to do something nice for her.
"You're crazy. They're going to see a side of us you don't want them to see."
He's right. It will either turn out fine, or into a complete disaster.
Justin and I finish lunch and try to decide where to go next.
"Let's see," I say, carefully unfolding the rain-soaked map I picked up from the hotel this morning.
It is a map of Amsterdam annotated with backpacker essentials — museums, budget restaurants, train stops, Internet cafes, open-air stages, and, my favorite, "doing nothing hangout spots." The red light district is marked by a red light bulb symbol. The logo for coffee shop is a cannabis leaf interlaid over a joint. I have circled a few must-go's — Heineken Experience, Sex Museum, Erotic Museum and Hash Museum.
"Let's get some sightseeing out of the way," I say.
It hasn't stopped raining since we left the hotel this morning. We watch cars try to park along the canal. There is no curb; drivers are one small mistake away from a plunge and a Bond-like vehicle escape underwater. The mere sight makes my heart race.
We walk past the Amstel, a river more famous for the things named after it. Amstel beer, produced from Amstel water, is enjoyed around the world. Even the city of Amsterdam has taken its name from the river. Every day, the Amstel turns a shade greener from jealousy.
After a long walk in the rain, we arrive at the Sex Museum. I learn, among other things, the evolution of condoms. One of the exhibits is a machine that inflates condoms through the ages, from ancient ones that look thicker than jeans, to the modern rubbery kind.
“Science has come a long way,” I say, pressing that button again and again.
Who would have thought that watching condoms inflate can be so therapeutic? If my mom were here, she would ask me to stop.
Next up is Red Light Secrets, also known as the Museum of Prostitution.
Prostitution in Amsterdam has Napoleon to thank for its genesis. In the old days, Amsterdam was a trading port frequented by sailors hungry for "entertainment." When the French invaded the Netherlands in 1795, they legalized prostitution. All sex workers were required to register and conduct twice-weekly testing amidst the rampant crisis of sexually transmitted diseases. Registered prostitutes were given a red card that served as a work permit. If found to be infected, their red cards would be taken away until they recover. Today there are three-hundred "peeskamers" in the Red Light District where sex workers earn their daily bread. These are glass-front booths where sex workers attract customers and do their thing. According to the museum, whatever you are into, there is someone for your needs.
I have always believed in an ancient Chinese saying that there is dignity in every profession, a sentiment that is echoed by the curators of this museum. The museum portrays prostitution as an important and serious business; sex workers should be treated with respect. In one room, visitors get a taste of what it feels like to stand inside a peeskamer. Disgusting men try to flirt with you. At times, angry purists quote scripture to disparage you. In the worst case, drunk, violent men can harm you. These girls have families, too.
When we leave the museum, sheets of rain pummel Amsterdam and bring an instant chill to the air.
"Let's go home and take a nap," a jet-lagged Justin suggests. I concur.
"So Vincy is a good girlfriend and all," Justin says as we sprint through the rain, "but she knows nothing about soccer."
"How so?" I ask.
"The other day, it started raining on my way to a soccer game. She was like 'oh my god, you're still gonna play? What if your head gets wet?' I was like 'err...should I hold an umbrella on the field then?'"
I fall asleep the second we get back to the room. Justin can't sleep for some reason, so he stays up to do food research. Before his MBA, Justin spent four years in private equity. He moved to Shenzhen for the job, but spent most days on the road, a stint that exposed him to a multitude of regional Chinese cuisine. He became something of a gourmet, much to the detriment of his waistline.
"We're eating Indonesian tonight," he says when I wake up.
In the 1800's, Indonesia, or the former Dutch East Indies, was a colony of Netherlands. The Dutch in those days often entertained out-of-town guests to show off the abundance of their colony. This was how Rijsttafel, which literally means "rice table," came about. Thanks to their opulence, Justin and I get to sample through twenty Indonesian dishes. A steadfast foodie would have looked up what each one is, but we just scarf them down. It is enjoyable nonetheless, albeit a little colonialist.
For dessert we have England versus Slovakia. At an empty bar we sit through a boring first half. The only thing worth noting is the condition of the bar's bathroom.
"Yo, don't use the bathroom," Justin warns, moving his arms in fly-swatting motion. “Bay-gao dirty. Lots of flies and stuff in there."
Nothing is happening at this bar. We decide to watch the second half somewhere else. We find a "coffee shop" across the street. A guy stands by the entrance like a statue. He looks like N!xau from The Gods Must Be Crazy; he is completely stoned. A sign on the wall reads: "Weed yes, Tobacco no." We've come to the right place.
We smoke the customary joint to no effect. All told, we have squandered twenty Euros on drugs with nothing to show for.
"Time to take it to the next level," I stand up and move toward the counter.
I buy a full gram of Buddha Cheese and ask three backpackers from England to teach me how to roll a joint. I cringe every time they ask me if I want to smoke a fag.
"That word is frowned upon in the United States these days, even if you're referring to a cigarette," I tell them, disgusted at myself for sounding like a mom. I've also learned having gay friends doesn’t give you the right to use gay slurs.
I take an instant interest to our three new British friends. Tom is a drama major and looks head-to-toe classic artist—shaggy hair, accessories, tattoos. His girlfriend Judy can't keep her hands off of him. Then there's Rory in the corner. He is a heavyset Brit, perhaps a tad greasy for most people's liking, but he carries an air of indifference I find halfway charming. With a big fat joint between his lips, he ignores all attempts at conversation. I can sit there all day and watch Rory roll joints with the precision of a watchmaker. I am starting to see how some girls find him sexy.
I hardly pay any attention to the game on TV, which is just as well—the teams play out a goalless draw. A lackluster England seems content with finishing second in the group. I hope this comes back to haunt them.
A gram is a lot of weed. We roll five, six joints and smoke them all. How much THC we actually consumed is up for debate as we can't seem to get our joints to light. More often than not, the whole joint goes up in smoke in seconds.
"I feel all we’ve been smoking is the rolling paper," Justin mutters through a long fit of cough. We didn't get high, but not for the lack of trying. I am both disappointed and happy with the outcome.
"Now I can say I’ve done it and it does nothing for me," Justin gushes.