This fall marks the twentieth anniversary of the Secrets of Paris. It might be hard to imagine what Paris was like two decades ago, but I can assure you those of us living here at the turn of the millennium had no idea what the future would bring.
I got married in Paris on September 11th, a date notable in 1999 only because it was one of the hottest days of the year (33°C/91°F). Crime novelist Cara Black published Murder in the Marais without knowing it would be the first of 20 – and counting! — in her mystery series set in Paris. Although A Year in Provence was enjoying a decade of undisputed success as the book on living in France, no one could predict that it would be unceremoniously dethroned five years later by the irreverent wit of Stephen Clarke’s A Year in the Merde. Cookbook writer and pastry chef David Lebovitz had just started his Paris website, becoming one of the city’s first “bloggers” before we even had a word for it. Everyone was worried about the “Y2K Bug” that would supposedly wreak havoc on the world come New Year’s Day, but we had no inclination of the violent storm that would crush France on December 26th when Tempête Lothar’s 169km/hour winds ripped up entire forests, knocked out electricity for hundreds of thousands of people, and left Paris looking like a post-Apocalyptic movie set. Despite the incredible fortunes being made in the Dot Com boom, France was still stubbornly hedging its bets on the Minitel (they would enjoy a short-lived moment of schadenfreude when the bubble burst and markets crashed less than a year later).
Amidst all this, I sat down at my desktop PC, dialed up the noisy modem, and published what would become the very first article introducing Secrets of Paris to the world wide web.
The Birth and Evolution of Secrets of Paris
I studied and trained to be a journalist, and already had a decent amount of experience under my belt before my Junior Year Abroad in Paris “detour” became permanent. While looking for a full-time journalism job in Paris, I made a decent income writing freelance articles for the content-hungry internet. One day I found an ad-free community platform called Suite101.com (similar to About.com) looking for writers to manage and post regular content on specific topics. And they paid $25 per article. I submitted my application and “Secrets of Paris” was born!
Before digital cameras were easy to get, I used clipart to illustrate my early articles.
I published 78 Secrets of Paris articles on Suite101.com between 1999 and 2004 (when they stopped paying). Meanwhile, in January 2001 I started the Secrets of Paris Newsletter as a Yahoo! Group. It wasn’t a “private” group, so anyone could join and soon I had over a hundred subscribers. High on that early success, I purchased the secretsofparis.com URL and used Dreamweaver to make my own website where I could publish the newsletter archives and link to my other freelance work. Even back then I preferred a more “minimalist” style.
In the first five years of Secrets of Paris, I worked for a year as the Travel Editor at ELLE International (aka ELLE.com) in Hachette’s Paris headquarters, moved to the French Riviera with my husband for three years and expanded my freelance coverage to all of France, adopted two fierce-yet-adorable miniature pinschers named Lena and Pedro, had my first full-length guidebook published (The Adventure Guide to Paris & Ile-de-France), and began leading summer tours for an international student tour company.
Despite the drop in pay after the Dot Com crash and the drop in demand for international travel content after 9/11, I worked full time building my freelance travel writing career, using the Secrets of Paris as my online portfolio and the newsletter as the one place I could write whatever I wanted (not what some editor in London or New York thought I should write). Although I occasionally wrote about destinations I visited on vacation, my focus was on Paris. I was less of a travel writer than a destination expert, but that’s saying a lot when you live in one of the most-visited cities in the world. There was no turning back.
A Tip of the Beret to “Mr. Heather”
I should say that none of this would have been possible except for the unwavering support – both financial and moral – of my first husband, known back then to Secrets of Paris readers as “Mr. Heather”. I did not have a trust fund to fall back on, and France wasn’t the kind of place that “dabblers” could easily find temp jobs. Despite rarely making over €5k/year in those early days, he encouraged me to attend writer’s conferences, paid for all of the software and computer upgrades I needed, and never complained when I holed up for days on end whenever I had an important deadline. He was also the one who wisely nudged me into that first summer gig as a tour guide when the Euro arrived and the US dollar – the currency I was paid in for 99% of my writing assignments – started tanking. Being a guide would later help support my writing career for over a dozen years of living on my own again in Paris. If I hadn’t been married in those early years, I probably would have returned to the US to pursue the dream job of my college days: White House Correspondent (dodged that bullet, didn’t I?!)
The Secrets of Paris Grows Up
In 2006, with the launch of my own private tours and indie publishing house, I moved Secrets of Paris to a fancy new WYSIWG platform, Squarespace. In addition to the newsletter archives, I added a Paris Resource Guide (consolidating all of the information I regularly updated for guidebooks like Fodor’s, Time Out, and Michelin), and added a “journal” (Squarespace’s name for a blog).
My first banner: not everyone caught the Mona Lisa reference, but I was pretty proud of my Photoshop skills.
Despite a few banner, color and font tweaks, the site has pretty much remained the same since then, while I focused my time and energies on the private tours and a never-ending series of writing projects, including two editions of the award-winning book Naughty Paris: A Lady’s Guide to the Sexy City, the “Paris Pastry” iPhone app with David Lebovitz, and the Secrets of Paris Travel Writers Workshop with Bryan Pirolli and Lisa Pasold.
Taking a Break
In August 2016, after a horrific two years for Paris that included multiple terrorist attacks, flooding of the Seine, and increasingly violent protest marches, I needed a break. American tourists were increasingly spooked about coming to Paris, and I was questioning whether I should be working in the tourism industry at all when the world seemed to be falling apart. I didn’t want to be one of those people with my head in the sand while issues like climate change, industrial agriculture and immigration needed our attention. I started looking for volunteer positions in environmental organizations, and by chance found out an international marine conservation organization I admired was looking for a full-time media director. I was offered the position the day after the 2016 Bastille Day terrorist attack in Nice. I didn’t even have to cancel the rest of my July tours because after the news reached the US, my clients all cancelled their trips. I got the break I was looking for.
The Secrets of Paris never made a lot of money, but it allowed me to live a very charmed life here in France. I’ve met fascinating people from all over the world – writers, artists, musicians, adventurers, entrepreneurs, actors, and even a few colorful eccentrics – some who are now dear friends. Being a writer and guide has opened doors to beautiful places and unforgettable experiences I never could have imagined (or afforded) on my own. But most importantly, the Secrets of Paris has allowed me to write directly for an audience that appreciates independent journalism in a world where most travel writing is either shallow click-bait or thinly-disguised marketing fluff. Especially if it’s written about Paris.
In this version of the website from 2011, I flirted briefly with a second sidebar full of ads. That didn’t last long.
This Old House
Although I kept the Secrets of Paris website and newsletter alive (barely) over the past three years, I passed on tour requests to trusted colleagues and put all publishing projects on hold indefinitely. Non-profit work is rewarding, but exhausting. With the long hours and frequent travel, I had little energy to explore Paris and keep up with the latest news.
But this January, when updating the little copyright notice at the bottom of the website to “1999-2019” I realized with a shock that two decades had flown by. Secrets of Paris was 20 years old, and I had nothing planned for its birthday. In fact, Secrets of Paris is on such an old platform (Squarespace 5) that it’s not supported, doesn’t work with most third-party apps, is not mobile friendly, and not secure. It’s not in good shape, to put it mildly. And yet I’m still getting over 1500 unique visitors per day.
It’s like the website is an old mansion with dozens of rooms whose owner keeps the front porch and entryway tidy, but hasn’t been upstairs in years. There could be dead bodies and holes in the roof up there for all I know. And my stats clearly show there are still people wandering around up there checking it out. If these metaphorical rooms were website pages, there would actually be over 2000 of them. I realized I needed to do some extensive renovations or shutter up the house for good.
Many of you have noticed that Secrets of Paris has come “back” this year, and I’ve appreciated your encouraging emails. I still have a day job trying to save the oceans, but I’ve clawed back my nights and weekends, happy to explore Paris and share its secrets with you once again. Having a bit of distance from the tourism industry has been good for me, and I think it’s good for Secrets of Paris, too. Despite my best efforts to avoid selling out, having to rely on Paris tourism to pay my rent for all those years had its own subtle effects on the kind of content I shared, if only just to avoid offending too many people (although TripAdvisor was always in my crosshairs).
Now that Secrets of Paris is truly a labor of love, I’ve realized it can more effectively continue to advocate for a more sustainable, ethical, and authentic view of Paris, both for visitors and residents. I can call out the fake news stories and click bait, help visitors avoid the tourist rip-offs, and expose the businesses that exploit Paris for their own benefit. And, of course, I can continue sifting through the tidal wave of Paris “content” online and in print to share only the best secrets with all of you!
The current — and last — version of Secrets of Paris on Squarespace 5. Adieu, mon vieux!
Coming: Secrets of Paris 2020
I’ve started building a new home for Secrets of Paris in WordPress (sorry, but after 10 months of trying to make it work in Squarespace 7, I’ve decided it’s just not designed for text-heavy websites anymore). I’m aiming to re-launch by the end of 2020. In the meantime, I thought I’d entertain you by publishing each day one of the 78 original Secrets of Paris articles from the archives. If all goes as planned, one day when you visit SecretsofParis.com it will suddenly open to a shiny new mobile-friendly, easily navigable website with all of the awesome, ad-free content you’ve been enjoying for the past 20 years. A grand merci to all of you in the Secrets of Paris community who have joined me me in this wonderful adventure, your support is what continues to make this all possible! – Bises, Heather
If you’ve read this far, you either deserve a medal for your attention span, or you’re stuck in an elevator with a decent network signal. Joking aside, I’m going to assume that you’re still reading because you care about Secrets of Paris as much as I do. If you find any enjoyment or value in the website or newsletter, please consider making a donation in the amount of your choosing to help support the its ongoing maintenance: https://paypal.me/ParisHeather