My wife and I both took Friday off, arranged to have our daughter spend the night with my in-laws, and proceeded to aimlessly wander the streets of Toronto.
I call it “having a Billy day.”
It’s named after Billy, the eldest son in the comic strip The Family Circus. As anyone who grew up reading the comic on weekends will remember, Bill Keane occasionally drew a panel devoted to Billy’s innocent adventures through his neighbourhood.
By following the dotted line, the reader could retrace his path through his backyard, his neighbour’s tree fort, and the front lawn of his school, showing all sorts of random activities that the boy found amusing (these days, he’d probably be diagnosed with ADHD).
For our “Billy” day, my wife and I took the subway to a stop we never go to, and walked to a neighbourhood we never visit. We lucked in to a lunch-time table at a trendy restaurant I wanted to check out, but after that we had no agenda and no goals. We simply became urban explorers. We went down streets and into stores, libraries and coffee shops. We read historical plaques on buildings. We drank cocktails and ordered appetizers. We held hands and embraced our city. Over the course of nine hours, we painted a dotted line through the streets of Toronto that would have made Bill Keane proud.
I hold the idea of Billy’s random bouncing through a streetscape as a model of a great serendipitous urban adventure. It is a wonderful thing to do when visiting a new city. In the years BC (Before Children) we had wonderful memories of exploring New York, London, Paris, Venice and Rome on foot. Lately though, I realized it was something I needed to do in order to rediscover the city in which I live.
As a new parent, I realize I am missing whole aspects of what the city offers, as I focus on seeing it through the eyes of a toddler right now. I can tell you all about splash pads and wading pools in North Toronto, but my knowledge of hipster bars on Queen Street West is kind of rusty.
As we live our busy lives, it can become all too easy to get stuck in the same patterns: traversing the same streets near work or home, eating the same comfort foods, and watching and reading the same shows and media sources.
We need to shake things up every once in a while, and open ourselves up to new experiences and serendipity.
When it comes to my personal media diet, I’m conscious of the news I consume, and strive to make sure it takes in a wide variety of sources, viewpoints and topics.
When it comes to food, I love to try new dishes, new recipes, and new products in the grocery store. My rule of thumb in a restaurant is to never order anything I think I know how to make at home.
When it comes to living a healthy urban lifestyle, I like to clear some time, put away my expectations, and just explore the city and see where my curiosity takes me.
It always worked out well for Billy.
A great guide for walking tours around Toronto is Shawn Micallef’s book Stroll.