PARIS — This is how the world has changed for us, we who live in Central Florida.
I’ve been fortunate to travel extensively, including at least a once-a-year trip overseas. I enjoy discovering new places, experiencing other cultures and, of course, trying the local cuisines. It’s fun to meet new people, even if, as it does here in one of my favorite European cities, that means picking my way through a conversation with only a menial grasp of the language. To be honest, even though a majority of French citizens seem to have a good base of English as a second language, I enjoy trying to have a dialogue in French.
Inevitably, the conversation will arrive at the same question: Where are you from? As anyone from the middle part of the state knows, the answer has the potential to dictate the rest of the conversation.
Go directly to the hometown as the answer and the unavoidable response will be “Mickey,” or, in more recent years, “Harry Potter.” And then, just as certainly, comes a protest from me that the parts of town that my new acquaintances saw when they visited — International Drive or the U.S. Highway 192 — are not the “real” Orlando. I tell them they missed a vibrant and modern downtown, tree-filled and unthemed parks, and brick-paved streets (though I never mention how much I detest those brick streets, which are bumpier than the roads in some of the poorer countries I’ve visited).
Instead, in the past when I’ve been asked where I’m visiting from, I just said Florida. Sometimes I’d leave it at a broader United States (les États Unis, if I wanted to get back on the language practice).
This trip it has been different. Each time I was asked “where are your from?” whether it was here or in Avignon or Lyon or, before that, London, I didn’t hesitate with my answer.
“I’m from Orlando.”
And this time the reactions were different. A brief silence. A pause. A nod of recognition. Because now Orlando has a different meaning to the world. And in this part of the world, there is empathy. They know the horrors of terrorist attacks, including on people who were simply enjoying themselves and living their lives.
When I visited here in 2015, only a few months had passed since the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo. This time it was mere months since the coordinated massacres that included the Bataclan nightclub and corner cafe Le Comptoir Voltaire. Like Pulse, they were filled with young people listening to music, dancing, having a drink, enjoying the company of each other.
So the world knows Orlando in a different way now, and our city has reluctantly become part of a club that is becoming less and less exclusive.
At Chez Denise, a restaurant in Les Halles and the only one that I make a point to visit each time I’m in Paris, our waiter gave us an example of how the world has reacted to our local tragedy. He was not our usual waiter — friendlier and less officious and with a better grasp of English.
When he asked Where are your from?, my answer caused him to reach into his pocket and pull out his phone. He told us that he is a budding cartoonist. (It turns out Americans aren’t the only ones who take a job as a waiter while working toward another career.) His name is Cyril Redon, but he signs his work Noder, his name backwards.
He showed us a cartoon he had drawn that used the meme first started after the Charlie Hebdo attack. “Je suis Orlando,” the character was saying. “I am Orlando.”
We encountered such solidarity all along the trip. In London, which was celebrating the city’s annual Pride festival, we saw numerous signs of support, from a “We all stand with Orlando” banner posted — officially — on the side of a bank to hand-drawn signs held by people marching. The day following the Pulse massacre, Londoners held a vigil in Soho’s Old Compton Street, which was filled with people who at one point stood in absolute silence for a full four minutes to show respect. The city’s recently elected mayor, Sadiq Khan, was photographed at the vigil in front of the Admiral Duncan, a gay bar that in 1999 was the scene of a fatal bombing carried out by a neo nazi. As I watched a live stream of the vigil on Facebook, I was taken with the compassion and sincerity of the people who took the time to gather.
After he showed us his Orlando cartoon, Redon swiped ahead to more recent drawings. He had already prepared one for Istanbul, which had been attacked a couple of days before. An unfortunate franchise.
Before leaving Paris, I felt the need to show my support as well. The people who carry out the attacks hope to disrupt normal life and instill fear. That’s why they’re called terrorists. I will not be intimidated. I will not stop traveling. I figured the best way to demonstrate that was to do what I normally do on a beautiful day in Paris. I went out for a beer.
And drinking it while wearing my #OrlandoUnited shirt at a table in front of Comptoir Voltaire made it taste all the better.