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A new life for abandoned baggage

"Gabbianella" volunteers distribute goods to the most needy

In Naples, they found a complete doctor's bag, the type used for home visits, with a blood pressure gauge, a stethoscope and all the rest. In Verona, along the same lines, a complete set of clinical records that "took who knows how long to put together." In Milan, the city of shopping, a suitcase that contained two brand new Chanel bags and a barely-used pair of Church shoes, all accompanied by receipts and guarantees: 1,550 euros for each bag and 528 euros for the shoes. And even a rather curious ‘party set," including plastic phalluses and latex lingerie.

It is strange what people forget in the suitcases they entrust to luggage services but never pick up. The good news is that these objects are now being offered a new life for humanitarian purposes after the Italian rail station company, Grandi Stazioni Spa, prompted by a just completed restructuring project, decided to clear out all the unclaimed bags. The company appointed the social welfare organization "La Gabbianella" to put the abandoned articles to good use by distributing them through a network of about 40 local non-profits.

Mariella Bucalossi, a Gabbianella volunteer and one of the coordinators of the project, underlined its complexity. "Just taking Rome's Termini station alone, we are talking about 2,600 items, including backpacks, packages and various shoulder bags," she said. In Rome, we have already completed the processing of two lots of bags – 548 of the total of 2,600 – distributing them to the Torvajanica charity and to the non-profit Erythros that deals with the rights and defense of foreigners." Likewise, the project has had success in Bologna, Milan, Florence, Naples, Venice and Verona, while Turin, Genoa, Bari and Palermo are about to start the process.

Things that are immediately reusable are distributed to people who need them. The other objects are sold in tag sales. Even the suitcases end being reused. "Do you know how many it takes to send the stuff to our street children in the Ivory Coast and Mozambique?" explains Riccardo Mabilia, a missionary from the Villaregia di Nola community who has emptied the deposit at Naples' central station. "Each summer ten or twelve volunteers go to Nairobi, each with one of these suitcases, filled with 20kg of supplies. Much of this is clothes, but there are also products for hygiene and personal cleanliness.

The only problem is caused by damaged bags, some of which, as Ernesto Chiesa of the La Goccia association in Milan described, have been "destroyed by mice, because they were abandoned who knows how long ago. We have had to throw away more than 500 items. The volunteers didn't even want to risk touching them."

La Goccia also works with unclaimed bags at Malpensa airport, where authorities take abandoned luggage very seriously. Since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the mere idea of unattended baggage in a crowded place causes considerable fear. "And in fact, before donating them for reuse, the railway police have to check them," said Bucalossi.

Sometimes the most suspect bags end up containing the most valuable goods. Massimo Paglialunga, in charge of coordination for the Grandi Stazioni, recalls that "according to the contract that regulates left luggage, bags are considered abandoned after 60 days. To be on the safe side, we wait a little longer: between six and 12 months, because sometimes someone realizes and asks for everything to be sent. Once the bag has technically passed into the ownership of Grandi Stazioni, the bag will be checked, transferred to a dedicated deposit, a type of closed archive, and then donated to the non-profit groups."

The system works well all around, although it's still not clear where those lingerie sets and sex toys ended up. Are they also dutifully recycled? "Joking aside," said Ernesto Chiesa, "we have destroyed them all: we do have a sense of morality."

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Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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