Ever since my ex and I broke up on holiday in Berlin over four years ago, I’ve avoided holidays with partners like the plague. At the end of last year, a spontaneous second date helped me break the cycle quicker than expected. As someone who finds relationships slightly alien and difficult to navigate, making the decision to say yes when invited abroad on a second date was the push I needed to discover something more meaningful. As bizarre as it sounds, a trip to an onion festival in Switzerland in November with someone I barely knew seemed a stretch, but I’m incredibly glad I said yes.
A love of adventure is something we share. Our first date had gone really well; after the pub shut we walked tipsily around London for hours, chatting about everything and anything. I knew I’d found someone special when he was accepting of me picking the melted Toblerone we’d had for breakfast in bed out of my belly button. There was an instant feeling of peace and safety in his company.
We already felt pretty bonded by the time it came to the second date. He mentioned he was going to an onion festival in Switzerland for work in three months' time (he’s a travel writer). "What the fuck does Switzerland have to do with onions?" I laughed. "Can’t lie," he grinned, "I can take a plus one if you want to find out." It was only a two-night stay and the hotel was already booked so I jumped at the chance and booked my flight. We agreed to get insurance in case we decided against the trip later down the line, which minimised any pressure, and continued to get to know each other as naturally as possible without using the holiday as some kind of deadline.
I reached out to psychotherapist Beverley Blackman before the trip. She explained: "Generally yes, new experiences do help couples bond, and it's a good way to bring laughter into an activity if you are both new to it. When you take a relationship out of its normal context and away from home, family, jobs, friends etc. and transplant it into a new environment, this puts the focus sharply on the relationship and on each of the people in it. Travelling with someone is a very good way of getting to know them quickly because you are spending a lot of time in each other's company… It's an experience that forces you both to be honest, communicate, explain, share, negotiate and listen – among other things."
I’d had to book a different, cheaper flight that was 30 minutes later than his. When we met to travel to the airport, I asked him where his luggage was as I wheeled my cabin bag off the bus. Pointing to a tiny backpack, I quickly learned how truly minimalist he is. We had realised the day before that we were flying from different terminals at Heathrow and so I continued the journey alone until we got to Switzerland. Standing there beaming at me when I came through arrivals, he clasped a mini sign he’d made in his notebook, which read: "TAXIS 4 LEGENDS. ELIZABETH MCCAFFERTY VIP." I’d definitely found a good egg.
We had to get up at 5am to go to the onion festival, a Swiss folk festival dating back to the 15th century. I sprang out of bed, ready for the big day, turning the light on full and sticking the kettle on. He snoozed for an extra 25 minutes and pulled a pillow over his head. Not being a coffee drinker, he tried to wake himself up by making a decaf. It only took a few onion puns in stupid voices to wake him up fully (he can’t resist a pun-off).
We soon found out that part of the tradition of the festival is pelting people with handfuls of confetti and smacking each other round the head with a plastic hammer. It’s also tradition to drink alcohol early so we stumbled through the streets bleary-eyed with prosecco in hand, brushing off flecks of multicoloured paper that I’m still finding in places to this day. As much as we wanted to soak up the culture, the novelty of having confetti thrown as hard as possible directly in our faces started to wear thin. I was relieved to find we both felt the same and we ran off to lie in the hotel pool for the rest of the day. As we walked back to the hotel through this strange array of onions and confetti, there was an almighty feeling of content and wholesomeness. It was so simple and silly and I felt more bonded to him than ever. The fact we were both happy to leave the festival earlier than planned made me feel like we were a team.
We were on the same budget and equally money-conscious when it came to planning activities. We spent little time planning the trip itself, which weirdly made it go smoother because we weren’t rushing to stick to an itinerary and spent most of the time just browsing and exploring whatever we came across. We didn’t have any expectations or conflicting opinions about what we wanted to do so it felt pretty breezy as we meandered through the cold Swiss streets.
We spent the next day trying out different restaurants, window-shopping and visiting a museum. We declined buying a Toblerone for £16 (thank god we were on the same page about that, too). The fact the holiday was so short definitely left us wanting more rather than exhausting each other. On the journey back we couldn’t help but talk about what other trips we could do together. The only gripe I had was when he got his toothbrush out of his bag while trying to find something and shoved it into his open side pocket, bristles exposed to the elements. "Oh my god, I beg you to put your toothbrush anywhere but this exposed," I laughed in shock.
We split ways at the airport and when we landed I raided Heathrow for Toblerone. I ran to arrivals, proudly brandishing the two bars I'd got for a tenner. As I saw him across the room, also brandishing two Toblerones, I realised we’d become the couple that normally cringe me out because I'm secretly jealous of them.
I’m aware that this may read as gushy but as someone who has been unlucky in love, planning a holiday on a second date is far from the red flag I thought it would be.
While it did work out for me, it is very important to keep yourself safe, especially when travelling with someone you don’t know too well.
"If you don't know someone too well, then it's important to set boundaries and to communicate where your red lines are. Make a note of the things you are not comfortable about," advises Blackman.
"Make sure you also have some time to yourself so that you have space to consider how things are going and how you're feeling, or some space to check in with a friend and chat if you need to.
"Don't go away for too long – a long weekend or a couple of days is enough at first. It will be intense so be gentle with yourselves. It's always tempting to drink more when you are away but alcohol is a disinhibitor and, if you are with someone new, it's as well to set yourself a limit, both for your own safety if you consider it to be needed and so that they don't have to cope with an intoxicated person that they don't know too well."
Booking a holiday early in a relationship is the opening line of many a horror story but the experience doesn’t have to end up as a cautionary tale. It takes work, consideration and sure, it’s unusual, but a trip away can be a great way of bonding. As we head into 2023 as a couple, it'll be the foundation for many more adventures to come.