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In Italy, Left-Behind Luggage Gets New Lease On Life

Train company project delivers abandoned articles to needy recipients.

(Toasty Ken)

By Egle Santolini

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 trimmings. In Verona, 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. There was also a rather curious ‘party set," which included plastic phalluses and latex lingerie.

It's strange what people forget in the suitcases they entrust to luggage services, but then fail to retrieve. The good news is that these objects are now being offered a new life, along with a humanitarian purpose. As part of a recently completed restructing process, Italian rail station company Grandi Stazioni Spa decided to clear out all of its unclaimed bags, appointing a social welfare organization called "La Gabbianella" to put the abandoned articles to good use by distributing them through a network of some 40 local non-profits.

The effort is more complicated than it may seem, explained Mariella Bucalossi, a Gabbianella volunteer and one of the coordinators of the project. "Just taking Rome's Termini station alone, we're talking about 2,600 items, including backpacks, packages and various shoulder bags," she said. "In Rome, we have already processed two lots of bags – 548 of the total of 2,600." They have since been distributed to the Torvajanica mission and and the Erythros charity that defends the rights of foreigners.

The project has also been successful in Bologna, Milan, Florence, Naples, Venice and Verona. Turin, Genoa, Bari and Palermo are getting ready to start the same 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 up being reused. "Do you know how many people it takes just to send the stuff to our street children in the Ivory Coast and Mozambique?" said Riccardo Mabilia, a missionary from the Villaregia di Nola community, who cleared out the lost bag collection at Naples' central station. "Each summer 10 or 12 volunteers go to Nairobi, each with one of these suitcases filled with 50 pounds of supplies. Much of it is clothes, but there are also products for hygiene and personal cleanliness."

The biggest problem is 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 abandoned luggage is treated as very serious business. Since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the mere idea of unattended baggage in a crowded place can create panic. "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. "According to the contract that regulates left-behind luggage, bags are considered abandoned after 60 days. To be on the safe side, we wait a little longer: between six and 12 months," explains Massimo Paglialunga, lead coordinator for the Grandi Stazioni. "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 designated storage place, 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 destroyed them all. We do have a sense of morality."

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