Out for my daily stroll around Venice, I found a tourist's handbag on a bench. It's awkward, isn't it? You don't want to sit down and go through someone's wallet in case they reappear while you are rummaging among their valuables. But I couldn't just leave it there - someone less scrupulous may have come along, the owner may not remember and return to the spot, or perhaps it was stolen elsewhere and then discarded. So I cancelled my plans and caught a ferry to the police station at St. Mark's Square - surely the best landmark for a tourist. I left that information with other people in the vicinity of the bench, and on a voicemail for which I'd found a number inside the wallet.
Italy is a bureaucratic and suspicious country, so I couldn't just hand the bag over to the police. Of course not. I had to sit in the police office for half an hour while a police officer went through the wallet, removed all the cards and inspected the contents. Then he had to type up a list of the contents, slowly two-fingered typing the numbers of all the cards in the wallet - of which there were a vast amount. The owner was a foreign citizen resident in the UK and she was carrying EVERYTHING around with her. National insurance card, driving licence, umpteen credit and debit cards, NHS cards, council cards, toy shop loyalty cards...
Finally the catalogue was typed, and I was lucky not to get into trouble myself for not carrying ID around with me. I had to justify why I had a Venice transport card yet claimed to be resident in the UK, and then provide my address and phone number. Then I had to sign in triplicate a long document listing all the unlucky lady's possessions, which the policemen then stamped with a row of different stamps he kept hanging beside him. He gave me a copy to keep (listing all the numbers of the individual bank cards). I don't know if this exhaustive documentation was to cover me or the policeman in the event of any complaints. Probably both. Italy is like that. At last I was free to go.
The lessons for tourists: Well, don't leave your possessions on benches, for a start. I lost a camera that way myself, in Rome. And be alert for bag-snatchers and pickpockets, especially getting on and off public transport.
1. Empty out your wallets and bags before you travel and consider what you actually need to take. You do need an EHIC health card, but other health, social security and ID cards aren't likely to be required. Local storecards, membership cards, official documents - most of these are unnecessary when you travel and would be a real hassle to replace. Only take the bank cards you need - and note down separately the details should you need to cancel them.
2. If your hotel has a safe, use it for anything you won't need during the course of the day.
3. Put your (or your companion's) phone number and contact details (for example, your name and hotel phone number) in an obvious position in your wallet, handbag, or mobile phone address book, especially if you know you are prone to losing things. You may get them back much more quickly.
4. The policeman informed me that if Mrs X didn't claim her bag, it would be sent to the address contained on her driving licence, through the British Consulate. So it may be a very good idea to include your home address in your possessions if you want to get them back - although consider this carefully if your house keys are likely to be stored in the same place.