How a simple bit of fabric became my favorite travel companion
Wondering about travel accessories for experienced, mature women who travel? OK, you want fashion? You want usefulness? You want cultural respect? Well, listen up, ladies. I’ve got you covered on all fronts.
I think most of us here are old enough to remember that AmEx commercial with the tag line “Don’t leave home without it.” I can still see the face of Karl Malden sternly telling me to put that plastic in my handbag. I don’t have an American Express card, but I do have one of those go-to, always-ready travel accessories I NEVER leave home without. I don’t even think of heading out the door, carry-on at the ready, without a soft, over-sized shawl to accompany me on my trip, no matter the season or where I am going. It’s the most versatile travel accessory I own and the one thing I use almost every day on any trip, anywhere. It keeps me warm on chilly and changeable days; it’s a pillow or a blanket on trains and planes and buses. It’s a beach and pool cover-up, a towel, a cultural emergency solver and a fashion statement.
Recently, I even had a nice-looking young man stop me on the street in Paris to ask me where I bought my shawl because it was so beautiful. How’s that for making a statement? (And for making you feel young and sexy again!)
Of all the varied and fashionable international travel accessories, I think such a shawl is the most useful for women travelers of any age. But for our age group, it is even more valuable. I don’t know about you, but I am a lot less likely than my younger travel sisters to want to walk around Paris in a hoodie on a breezy day attempting to keep warm or throw a gauzy, see-through cotton voile thing over a bikini at the beach to protect me from the sun. And as much as I love the idea of a sarong, my figure no longer gets so excited about them. I want to look good and hopefully fit in with the locals, at least a little. My travel accessory shawl does all that and more.
Your own big travel shawl might be a fine, expensive pashmina or one your mom knitted for you. It might be Neiman-Marcus expensive or street-stall cheap. But trust me, you need one.
The big shawl I used as an all-purpose travel accessory on my most recent trip in Europe was made in India, though I bought it in one of my favorite shops in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico (Chaski’s on Calle Juarez, if you want to know). It is made of viscous, a soft synthetic that feels like fine wool, is warm and drapes beautifully. It cost me about $16US.
The versatility of this garment/wrap/thing is astounding. I even used it one day to carry vegetables home from a street market in Amsterdam when the cheap plastic bag I was carrying broke. If I had a baby, I would no doubt use my shawl to carry the little creature slung on my back, like Mexican women do in their “rebozos.”
How this came to be my favorite travel accessory
I first discovered “the trick of the shawl” as the most perfect of all travel accessories more than 40 years ago. In college, I taught myself to knit. One of the results was an enormous shawl made with two strands of thick, nubby yarn—turquoise and black, as I recall—and knitted on giant wooden needles. It was both lacy and warm, but so bulky I almost didn’t take it. At the last minute, I grabbed it to keep me warm on the plane, thinking I wouldn’t miss it terribly much if I had to abandon it along the way.
I would soon change my mind about that.
That pile of black-and-blue knit became my closest companion in that first trip across Europe. It covered my head in a church in Barcelona. It was an acceptable blanket the night I had to sleep in a park in Paris because friends and I had arrived on Bastille Day and there was literally “no room in the inn.” It was a cover-up on the beach at Zandvoort in Holland, a pillow on a train to Edinburgh, and a dressy wrap for dinner with a very proper English butler friend at Claridge’s in London.
That shawl became my best friend, a physical and emotional comfort on long train rides and lonely nights, my own personal “security blankie.” You can’t say that about many everyday travel accessories.
From that first trip in 1970 until today, I have never traveled without some version of the trusty Big Shawl. And I doubt I ever will.
Keep in mind that women have been wrapping up, keeping warm, covering skin, hiding, and staying sacred in over-sized shawls for a long time, almost since time began. In virtually every period, every culture and every situation, the big shawl has been found useful for all sorts of reason.
What you should look for in the perfect over-sized shawl as a travel accessory:
• Does not wrinkle easily. It’s going to be balled up and crushed and stuffed. A lot.
• Does not snag easily. I learned this with that first loose-knit one. You are going to put it through hell and back, and it needs to keep looking good.
• Made from a fiber that will hold in heat. You’ll use it as a blanket, a cover-up on cloudy days or even as a muffler when it’s downright cold.
• Large enough to cover most of your body when you are seated on a plane or train, as a blanket.
• A color or print you love, that makes you feel pretty, can dress up a simple outfit but also does not show dirt too badly.
• A fabric that drapes nicely so it makes an attractive shoulder throw or head scarf when you need to cover up for cultural reasons—or for rain!
• Does not take two days to dry! (I learned this hard lesson with that blue-and-black knit beauty, too.)
• Is not so expensive that you’ll be devastated if you lose it. Just remember the fun you’ll have haggling in a street market or souk for a new one.
So now, grab your big, comfortable, soft, pretty, multi-function travel shawl, ladies. Put it on the top of your suitcase, more easily reachable than all your other travel accessories put together. And sally forth! You are now ready for anything.
Many thanks to my friend Jim Knoch for taking the pictures of me in my travel shawl!