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Marcus Gee

Toronto's neighbourhood of the travelling dinner Add to ...

Stacey Daub loves her neighbourhood in the west end of downtown Toronto. She loves that she can bike to work and walk to the corner for a video. She loves the mix of people, from the older Portuguese guys who make homemade wine to the trendy young couples with designer strollers.

The one thing lacking is a sense of community. She is tight with her immediate neighbours, but eight years after moving into her peak-roofed brick house, she realized that she knew nothing about people half a block up the street.

So, last year, she borrowed an idea from her sister in St. Catharines, Ont. and organized the first annual Beaconsfield Village Travelling Dinner. The dinner has four courses: appetizers, soup and salad, main and dessert. Each household hosts one course. Three other households - mostly couples - come as guests. When the course is over, everyone breaks up and people proceed separately to their next course, where they meet a whole new group. In the course of the evening, they meet around two dozen people from the neighbourhood, many of them complete strangers.

The event has been a wild success. Last year Stacey's husband and daughter put flyers in mailboxes, not really expecting a big response. Sixty people from 30 households signed up. This year's event had 109 people from about 50 households. On Saturday, from 5:30 to midnight, people moved from place to place, eating great food, drinking copious amounts of liquor and learning about their neighbours.

Tony, a British-born interior designer, invited guests into Dirty Dick's, a full replica of an English pub that he built in his basement. R.J., a pianist, played Brahms and his partner Sean sang. Angela, a filmmaker just back from seven weeks in Thailand studying death rituals, served a Thai soup of chicken and mushrooms in coconut milk.

Conversation at her table ranged from our alienation from the dying process to the depressed price of lobster in Prince Edward Island to the behaviour of headless chickens. Fernando from Barbados and John from Lively, Ont., agreed: They really do run around the barnyard.

"There is so much more behind those front doors than you can possibly imagine," marvels Stacey, 40, a busy health-care executive who spent more than 20 hours organizing the dinner with the help of an Excel spreadsheet.

Between courses, people would walk to their next destination, squinting at Stacey's address list and saying cheery hellos to fellow travellers - something they wouldn't dream of doing any other night. For a few hours, the neighbourhood came alive with a spirit of camaraderie. People positively glowed - and it wasn't just the booze. There was something about welcoming strangers into your home, and being welcomed by others, that made everyone feel good. "People were quite overwhelmed with the joy of it," says Stacey.

Simple curiosity is one explanation. Who doesn't wonder what their neighbours are like? One traveller called the evening an adults' Halloween - except that instead of peering into the houses of unknown neighbours as your costumed kids go up to the door, you get to go right inside and look around. Stacey herself calls it speed dating for neighbours.

But there is something more to it. Even in big cities - maybe especially in big cities - people feel a deep craving for community. Many of the institutions that used to bring us together, like church and extended family, have faded. With two-career families the norm, people are busy and mothers aren't always at home mingling with the neighbours. In a diverse downtown, it can be hard to make connections. The travelling dinner is a brilliant way to break the ice.

For one night, at least, people get a glimpse of how others around them live, and it changes how they think of the neighbourhood they inhabit.

"People tell me, 'When I walk down the street now I don't just see houses, I see homes,' " says Stacey. She expects an even bigger turnout for next year's travelling dinner.

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