I was on lunch preparation duty on the first day of our working retreat at Borgo Basino, a hilltop eco-farm in Italy. We’d been clearing the greenhouse during the morning, readying it for an nnovative aquaponics irrigation project. I say greenhouse because that’s what the farmers called it but to my mind it was more of a barn really. It would take up perhaps half an allotment. We cleared weeds, moved wood and sorted through accumulations of stuff. It was hot and by 11 in the morning we were ready for a break.
As we walked back up to the house I told my lunch-prep partner what I’d read on the menu plan. “I’m not much of a cook,” he said, “but I can probably manage pasta and pesto.”
“I think we might be making the pesto,” I said, “not opening a jar.” When we got to the shady terrace where the outdoor kitchen was we discovered that we were indeed to make the pesto. In fact, for our first task we were shown where to harvest the basil.
Borgo Basino is a family farm and agri-turismo business which is now moving towards being a place for community living and social action. The QVA working retreat was set up in collaboration with Evan Welkin, an American Quaker, living and working there. He’s married to Federica, one of the Borgo Basino family, and is keen to develop links with Quakers across Europe as part of their development work. You can read more about their work and ideas on their blog.
We were a small group of eight Quakers or Quaker friends, five from Britain and two from Italy. In addition to the greenhouse clearing we did gardening, harvesting and preserving, as well as visiting a project in Bologna that provides social support for immigrants. Our days had worship at the beginning and end, a retreat session in the afternoon, with physical work in the first part of the morning and the later afternoon.
Most of our group activities – worship and meetings and relaxing as well as cooking and eating together – took place on that shady terrace. From it we could look out across the green valley or at night in the darkness we listened to the cicadas’ song. The secluded beauty of the hilltop setting added to our sense of retreat from our day to day lives. Living in community and meeting new friends brought additional opportunity to see things anew too.
Preparing and cleaning up our lunch and evening meals gave us the chance to get to know each other and to learn more about Italian food and culture. We were provided with ingredients, most of which were fresh produce grown within a few miles of the kitchen, and simple recipes that created delicious satisfying meals. We amazed ourselves with our culinary success but the real credit must go to Federica’s menu planning.
Our work was straight-forward and we made clear progress. Everyone could join in and working together in a group required care for one another and respect for boundaries. On the final morning one group went to the garden field while the rest of us shifted a big pile of earth into a raised bed planter with shovels and wheelbarrows. Then we laughed and sang while breaking up the dry clay lumps, tedious work relieved by the company of others. Finally we planted the bed – strawberries at one end and salad at the other – crops that will continue for longer under the cover of the greenhouse.
Reflection sessions linked to the QVA theme of God in the movement of peoples. What of our own experience could we bring to explore this theme more deeply? We had travelled to come on retreat; where had we come from and what were we leaving behind? What does home mean and where do we experience it? What is our work and ministry? When do we do it? These and other questions were explored together. We learned from each other and from others connected to the Borgo Basino community.
In all the week was a balanced opportunity for reflection and action, relaxation and effort. Our work together enabled progress that would not have been possible for one or two people to achieve. Borgo Basino offers a glimpse of a simpler more balanced existence, free from consumerism and the usual hectic pace. Our retreat was a time of refreshment, like the breeze that travelled in across the valley, easing the heat of the day.