Interview with Heather Stimmler
Creator of Secrets of Paris
I vaguely remember exactly when I reached out to Heather Stimmler back in the earlier days of the internet and blogging. (Circa 2004?) I was living in Paris and I came across a website of a woman in the south of France writing about France in the same personal tone that I was writing in. Back then, there were just a handful of people freely writing online about food, travel, or whatever topics interested us, and it was fun to read her posts and stories about France.
Heather eventually moved to Paris and launched Secrets of Paris, and we became in-person pals. Her site has grown substantially due to her unique ability to scope out, and share with readers, very special addresses in Paris that even I don’t know about! As Paris evolves to be sustainable, there are great tips on her site and in her newsletter about everything, including places offering earth-friendly housewares and cleaning supplies, shops that sell food “in bulk,” up-to-date Covid-19 information, how to avoid misinformation about Paris on Trip Advisor, navigating the complexities of Charles de Gaulle airport (help!), and lots, lots more.
I thought Heather would be a great person to interview for my first newsletter interview of people and friends in Paris, and I hope you enjoy reading about her as much as I enjoyed talking to her! - David
David: Hi Heather! I haven’t seen you in a few months but looking back on things, 2020 was quite a year! We went into total lockdown last spring in France, opening back up for the summer, until things took another downturn this winter, and here we are again, under curfew. I use to see you more often, but it’s been challenging because the cafés and restaurants are closed. So I’m happy to catch up with you here. How are you doing?
Heather: I can’t really complain, David. I have a full-time job that already allowed me to work from home, so not much changed for me, even during the full lockdown last spring. And I usually see my partner Fred 2-3 times per week unless he’s quarantining after coming into contact with someone who tests positive for Covid-19 (he works with the public all day, so he’s exposed more than I am). We both lost family members in 2020, so we take the risk seriously.
And we were all really lucky here in France to be able to have a relatively “normal” summer, as you mentioned, before the second wave in October. We spent a week in the South of France at the beach and another week traveling through the center of France, visiting small villages (with our masks on) and doing a lot of hiking. And even here in Paris we were all still meeting up at sidewalk cafés for lunch with friends, weren’t we? If I tell myself I’ve only been confined since October it doesn’t feel as overwhelming.
I have to admit, if this pandemic happened when I was a newly-single, 30-something party girl out visiting bars and clubs every night, I probably would be feeling a LOT different about the ongoing curfew than I do now that I’m usually home with Fred making dinner and watching Netflix by the time curfew kicks in. What I miss most is being able to see my friends and family overseas. They can’t travel here, and I can’t travel there…like everyone else, I’m finding my enthusiasm for Zoom calls wearing off!
David: In addition to how we’re doing, the bigger question everyone wants to know the answer to is; How is Paris? You write about the current situation frequently in your newsletter and on your Secrets of Paris Steady channel, but can you give my newsletter readers a little rundown on the mood in Paris, and your take on what direction the city is heading?
Heather: I think the answer is, “it depends.” Shops are open, parks are open, supermarket shelves are full (even with toilet paper), and there are a ton of new options for restaurant take-out and delivery that didn’t exist before the pandemic. So, in many ways it seems like life goes on as usual. I mean, Paris is Paris. It has been through far worse in its history and is still standing. But you can feel that people are worried about the immediate future once the pandemic is under control. Certain industries that have been hit really hard, notably tourism, nightlife, and culture, which were – for the most part – are still heavily restricted, even during the summer. I think we’re still rightly focused on halting the hospitalizations and deaths, and hope we can deal with the everything else once we’re all vaccinated. France has a pretty good safety net, but I think we’re all holding our breaths a bit to find out who and what will still be standing when everything opens back up.
Heather: I had always planned on being a journalist, that’s what I studied and had been doing in the U.S. since high school. When I moved to Paris permanently after graduating college there were so many well-paid gigs for “content producers” (it was the late 90s dotcom boom) that I easily found freelance work writing about Paris and got my first “real” job as Travel Editor at ELLE magazine’s new website in 1999. But there was always cool stuff going on in Paris that didn’t fit for any of the publications I wrote for, so I started sharing them with my friends on Yahoo! Groups (a sort of free newsletter service before there was Mailchimp and WordPress). I named it Secrets of Paris and sent it to maybe 20 people I knew.
Suddenly I had over 100 people reading. I was happily surprised, so I kept going. Like you, I really wanted to write about the cool stuff in Paris that the mainstream press never covered. A year later I created a website as a place to post the archived newsletters and then just kept adding content. There were only two or three websites about Paris in English, so there wasn’t much competition at the time, lol!
David: You’ve been a publisher, a Paris guidebook author, an app developer, and a tour guide. With tourism out of the picture for a while, what are you focusing on now?
Heather: Well, I haven’t been giving tours since 2016 when I decided to take a break from tourism and got a full-time job as Media Director for Sea Shepherd Global, a marine conservation NGO based in Amsterdam. I was actually pretty burned out and needed a break from writing about Paris for a while. I kept the Secrets of Paris website going, but most of the articles were written by co-editors Scott Carpenter and Bryan Pirolli, and I sent all tour requests to other guides. But when 2019 approached I realized it would be the Secrets of Paris 20th anniversary. My old website hadn’t been changed in 15 years and was in dire need of a complete overhaul. I thought, “You either have to fix it, or shut it down, make a decision.” And after my four-year break, I guess I still wasn’t ready to let it go. So I started working on the new website in August 2019 and thought I’d be finished by January 2020, but moving over 1500 articles and images from an old, outdated platform to its new home on Wordpress took longer than I planned. Like apartment remodeling, I suppose. 😉
I ended up spending every night and every weekend of the first lockdown getting the new website ready…while also publishing daily “Coronavirus Lockdown Day XX” posts. It was painful but also cathartic going through all of my old content. I happily deleted a LOT, but kept some of the fun archives, like a time capsule of Paris in the early 2000s. I finally launched the new site over the summer, and am still updating a lot of the old content while adding newer articles. I certainly feel more excited about writing about Paris again now that I can do it just for the joy of sharing what I love about the city, and not because I’m trying to make a living from it. Having that freedom has also convinced me to finally finish the book I started writing in 2015 about my experiences in the Paris travel industry. I think the way it’s evolved over the past 20 years isn’t good for travelers, and certainly isn’t good for Paris. Maybe the silver lining of this pandemic will be a more conscious and humane approach to travel. So, I’m diving in…for better or worse!
David: So many people love Paris and as a former guide myself, it’s really fun to show people parts of Paris they wouldn’t get to see on their own. In addition to making a living, what was your motivation for leading tours, and what did you get out of it?
Heather: When the Euro arrived on the scene in 2002 it immediately was worth more than the US Dollar…and then it just kept going. The Dollar has always been stronger than the French Franc, it just seemed unbelievable. But since 95% of my writing work was paid in US Dollars, it was pretty painful to see what was left after converting to Euros. I was already writing guide books for four years before I became a guide, so I thought it would be an easy summer job to tide me over while waiting for the Dollar to recover. (Spoiler alert: still waiting.)
I worked for a few international tour companies like EF (student tours), Backroads (luxury adventure tours), and Context (specialized small group tours) before I started doing my own Secrets of Paris tours in 2005. I did this partly because my readers started asking me for private tours when they learned I was moonlighting as a tour guide, and partly because I didn’t find the tours I was supposed to be giving for others (for the other companies) to be particularly interesting, but was required to stick to their tour descriptions.
Being a private guide was one of the hardest and most rewarding jobs I’ve ever had. I loved making sure each client got to see something special, something that I knew from the detailed questionnaire I made them fill out, that they would really love. The more obscure and difficult, the better. It would have been easier to do cookie-cutter tours over and over, but I get so easily bored, and it wasn’t as if there weren’t dozens of other companies offering all the generic “Paris Highlights” tours. Sometimes, I even tried to talk clients out of booking tours with me, telling them if they just want to see the basics, they can do that cheaper with anyone else. But I think the Secrets of Paris readers could tell from my writing what kind of guide I would be, so they self-selected. The worst tours I had were always ones set up by third parties, like tour agencies. So I stopped accepting tours like that. I have to admit I was very fortunate that I could afford to turn away work. It meant I didn’t make as much money as I could have, but I enjoyed my job, and that was more important. And some of my tour clients actually became good friends who I still keep in touch with to this day.
David: What was hard about leading tours, or were there any experiences while leading tours that were challenging?
Heather: Oh, that’s a whole book unto itself (a book I’m pretty sure you told me NOT to write, David, LOL!) But in general the hardest part was just being prepared for any and all unexpected scenarios: strikes or protests, heat waves, sleet storms, pickpockets, drivers who don’t show up, restaurants that “lose” your reservation, clients who are in the middle of a family squabble during the tour, clients who get sick during the tour (luckily I never had to take any of mine to the ER…but there were quite a few trips to the pharmacy and one positive pregnancy test), and – who would have guessed? – a volcano eruption in Iceland that closed all French airports for a week. One client had come to Paris to pick up her wedding dress after a final fitting…and missed her own wedding back in the US! Aside from the logistics, there’s always the chance of a nightmare client. Luckily I can count them all on one hand. You have to trust your gut, sometimes, and decline a tour even if the money is good.
David: Yikes. I forgot about the infamous “ash cloud” that stopped travel for several weeks. I was leading a tour around that time and guests (and we) were scrambling with what to do. I also remember a lot of people were stuck in Paris, which can sound like paradise, but travel offices were mobbed, tour and travel companies had thousands of cancellations from people that couldn’t make it over, and those who were “stuck” here had to find places to stay and had additional expenses (and problems) finding accommodations when the city’s hotel rooms filled up.
(And thanks for reminding me about those heat waves. I was living in a top-floor apartment several canicules, a French word I learned quickly, where the temperature often inched up to 110ºF (43ºC) in my apartment.)
I have to say, your newsletter is perhaps my favorite about Paris. You really dig and give great insider tips, everything from info about a website where you can “rent” a neighbors washer/dryer to do your laundry, to eco-friendly kitchenware shops and places where you can buy food en vrac (in bulk). But you also have solid news about pressing social issues, benevolent organizations, and how France is dealing with Covid-19. You stopped writing your newsletters for a while. Why was that, and what made you start back up again?
Heather: Merci David! To elaborate on what I said earlier…when I started Secrets of Paris I just wrote about everything because there wasn’t much about Paris online in English back in 1999, so I wanted to cover it all. Now that there are countless sites about Paris, some of them very good at covering a specific niche, I can focus on what really makes mine different and interesting…at least to me! About 25% of my readers live in Paris full time, so I know I can include a lot of information that’s not usually found on websites that are targeting tourists. But I’m also pretty opinionated about the touristy stuff on everyone’s “must visit” list, so people who like that tend to enjoy reading Secrets of Paris. It’s certainly not for everyone, and that’s okay. There are plenty of other great Paris websites out there!
David: You recently started a membership-based Secrets of Paris. People have been wary about paying for information online over the last few years, but things seem to be shifting in that direction as newspapers and magazines have had to do. A lot of people have hopped onto the “subscriber” bandwagon using platforms like Patreon, Substack, and Steady. There’s so much free information out there, why should people pay when they can get info for free?
Heather: That’s a totally valid question, David. And the short answer is “you get what you pay for”. There are always the extras that come with being a member, like exclusive content. But being a paid member is a vote for quality in a world full of click-bait, generic fluff, and flashing ads that take up half the screen.
If a writer or a website has a solid record of publishing quality content that you rely on and want to see more of in the future, then becoming a financial supporter is the best way to make sure that happens. To me it’s not that different from subscribing to a magazine you love when you could just read it for free at the library (or even at the newsstand if no one notices how long you’ve been standing there). You and I and so many other writers are working our butts off to make engaging and useful content, from articles to videos to smartphone apps. And there’s a ton of competition for readers because advertisers just want to see the clicks, not necessarily quality. I know a lot of sites like yours also have sponsorships and very targeted ads that fit with what you’re writing about, but I don’t think readers always understand how much work is involved to set that up and manage it, time that could be spent making more fun Instagram Live Videos for your readers. 😉
I’ve always been wary of asking anyone to pay for access to my website or even the newsletter. But when I relaunched my website, I knew I’d only have the motivation to continue if I considered it to be more of a public service for my readers than a commercial site to pay my bills. I consider myself a journalist, not an “influencer.” So I decided to launch the “reader supported” model, instead of ads or sponsorships, to cover the costs of running the site and newsletter, and expenses for doing the research.
My membership community is on Steady, which is a bit like Patreon but based in Europe and geared towards independent journalists. For now it’s small enough that subscribers can have Zoom chats with me, where I ask the members what articles they’d like to see on Secrets of Paris. It has also turned into a bit of a Covid Travel Ban support group, because so many of them are missing Paris right now and like to be in contact with someone here. I’m also more comfortable sharing more personal, behind-the-scenes stuff on there, such as photo essays from my summer vacation with Fred and his family, and other experiences I’d never share on the public website, because my subscribers are like parts of my extended group of friends. I can post without worrying about getting trolled. I started sharing goofy videos of Fred and me chatting about funny French-English language misunderstandings, or of him singing French Christmas songs…now he’s the star of my Steady community! I can’t wait until the pandemic is over so I can host meet-ups in person with the members. At the end of the day, they’re getting a lot of value and real connection for less than the price of buying me a hot chocolate each month. And if they don’t agree, they can unsubscribe anytime and still read the website and newsletter for free. It seems like a win-win situation for both the readers and the publishers.
David: I have to say, when I met Fred, he quickly became one of my favorite people, too. I instantly liked him and I see why he’s a hit with your readers! Romain has become a surprise hit with my viewers, too. Maybe one day we can do a partner swap? (Uh, for videos, I mean…) On another note, when I bought my apartment, you told me, “Whatever you do, don’t write a book about buying an apartment in France and renovating it” which I...uh, did. But the story was too good and too funny (at times…) not to share. That’s what we writers do, I suppose. What kinds of books about Paris do you like, and are there any you recommend?
Heather: Ha! I think I may have been more focused on the “buying an apartment in France and renovating it” part because I had only heard horror stories. One of the first big “living in France” bestsellers was Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence where he was able to chuckle about having no roof in the middle of the winter Mistral because of shoddy ouvriers (contractors). I remember shaking my head when you told me you gave three-month notice on your old rental…I knew your new place wasn’t going to be ready that quickly. Even though I heard about everything happening in real time, reading L’Appart years later was like watching a slow-motion train crash, I couldn’t watch, but I couldn’t look away, lol! At least you ended up with a great book from the experience.
As for Paris books in general, there are SO MANY! And I get them all sent to me, even though there’s a huge backlog and I feel terrible I can’t read everyone’s. My favorites are usually the ones that combine personal experience with some aspect of Paris I didn’t already know, irreverent-but-honest exposés on Parisians, or almost any well-written historical non-fiction book or niche guidebook. Some favorites include Elaine Sciolino’s The Seine, Craig Carlson’s Pancakes in Paris, The Bonjour Effect by Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow, Stephen Clarke’s 1000 Years of Annoying the French (and his Year in the Merde was one of the first “expat novels” I really liked), and the Africa in Paris city guide from Jacqueline Ngo Mph’s Little Africa project. Also, a special shoutout to Olivier Magny’s blog-to-book from quite a few years ago now, Stuff Parisians Like. I love to read passages from the French edition, Dessine-Moi Un Parisien, out loud to Fred’s parents to see their reaction (priceless…).
David: Well, on the upside, L’Appart is being developed for a tv series, so I’m glad I didn’t listen. (Although I have to admit, as things were going wrong, I kept saying, “Why didn’t I listen to Heather?”) There are a lot of clichés and misinformation about Paris floating around out there. What are some of the ones that bother you?
Heather: Ugh, there are so many that really bother me, but for once I’ll be brief: it’s a total cliché that Parisians are all fashionable, that you can’t get a bad baguette (or meal) in Paris, that there’s no customer service in France, and that the French go on strike all the time because they’re lazy. As for misinformation, travel websites are rife with it. Some are so atrociously wrong, and there’s usually no way to even comment or send an email to ask them to correct it, sometimes not even a name of the author. If you’re getting your travel information from websites that are written anonymously, caveat emptor!
David: Speaking of which, the elephant in the room is Emily in Paris. (And its recent Golden Globe nomination which has caused a bit of a stir.) Emily led a very charmed life, lived in a lovely neighborhood (how come my neighbors never answer the door shirtless?), and spent her day doing - and wearing - fabulous things. People frequently ask me what I think about the show and my take is: It’d be great if she stepped outside of her neighborhood and met some different people that reflected the diversity of Paris. And also, there are so many great and funny situations in Paris that you can go beyond the ones already well-known to Americans. Your life is a little different than hers, as are most of our lives in Paris. Care to share your thoughts on the show, and what you think should happen in Season 2?
Heather: We’re really going there? ;-) You mention “…it’d be great if she stepped outside of her neighborhood and met some different people that reflected the diversity of Paris.” Well, I actually think the cast is diverse for a series of its kind (especially looking at how white Sex & the City was!), but I’m guessing what you mean is socio-economic diversity? That sentiment crosses all our minds these days, which is a good thing, but I think it would be hard for Emily in Paris to do that because the tone of a “Fashionista RomCom” is artificially attractive and upbeat by nature, and Emily’s “problems” can be laughed off.
For example, how would they portray a friend who’s a single mom trying to raise three kids on a low-wage job and living in a crappy two-room apartment in a rough part of town, without coming across as patronizing or even insulting by minimizing her real problems? Maybe there’s a good example of another Fashionista RomCom where that’s been done well, but I think people just need to stop expecting a balanced meal when they’re consuming junk food.
If you think those kinds of shows that only portray affluent people’s lives in beautiful settings shouldn’t exist at all, don’t watch them. Netflix will only make more of what people will watch. And there are plenty of shows that reflect the real diversity and issues of Paris today. For example The Eddy is a multi-lingual series set in Eastern Paris and the suburbs with a diverse, international cast of characters dealing with serious problems. And there’s an awesome jazz soundtrack. It came out a year ago and barely got a peep of public interest. Maybe because that’s just not what most people were in the mood to watch (“a bit too much reality” said Fred, summing it up after we watched the first four episodes). As long as there are still choices out there, I’m happy. We should all spend more time supporting the kind of shows we want to see more of instead of trying to turn the fluff into something it’s just not.
As for what I think should happen in Season 2? I haven’t given it much thought, but how about if Emily stays in bed with stomach flu for a few episodes and the cute chef neighbor walks around all day with his shirt off because there’s no A/C and….global warming? 😉
David: Yes, more of her shirtless neighbor would be welcome, and I have a suspicion that his ex-girlfriend, Camille, has her eye on Emily. So we’ll see where that goes… Speaking of things we don’t know, what is something that people don’t know about Paris, that you think they should know?
Heather: Well, I think your readers probably already know this, but Paris isn’t just Fashion Week, pastries, and trendy wine bars for rich people. Parisians of all ages are really engaged in the fight for the planet and a more sustainable, responsible, and ethical city. There are so many cool venues bringing together these ideas like Le Recyclerie at Clignancourt, Ground Control at Gare de Lyon, La Base near Canal St-Martin, and the Fondation GoodPlanet in the Bois de Boulogne. A bit of French and a sense of adventure goes a long way in discovering these kinds of places.
David: Before I let you go, can you let readers know some of your favorite spots in Paris, maybe a café or restaurant, a bakery or other types of places? Also, since you’re vegan, if you have any recommendations in that direction, those would be welcome as well.
Heather: It’s always so it’s hard to make a list because I’m discovering new places all of the time, but here are some current favorites:
Les Résistants is an adorable farm-to-table restaurant in the 10th arrondissement that I will be booking the second everything opens back up in Paris. Their website is only in French, but describes their “cuisine engagée” in great detail: every single item in their kitchen comes from a French producer (listed right on the menu) who adheres to their chart of quality: good taste, sustainable, seasonal, local, traditional farming methods, total transparency, organic, ethical, and reasonably priced. And there are always vegan options.
Land & Monkeys vegan bakery in the 11th. You came with me here, David! Now it’s where I go to get the pastries I bring to Sunday lunch with Fred’s family. I’m the only vegan, and allergic to eggs, but their pastries are so good – especially the lemon tart -- that even Grandmère appreciates them. And I always get a few extra monkey cookies to take home, hands-down the best cookie I’ve ever had in Paris, vegan or not!
Chouchou Hôtel & Bar Guinguette in the 9th near Opéra Garner and Galeries Lafayette had the misfortune of opening in the middle of the pandemic (Fred and I tested it the only month it was open), but I have no doubt it will be a great hit with locals and visitors. The boutique hotel is excellent, but what’s really fun is the street-level guinguette set up like an informal food market with a bunch of tables under a glass atrium and a stage with live free music and comedy shows in the evenings, all open to the general public. It’s the perfect place to meet up with friends for drinks once were all vaccinated!
Musée Carnavalet, the history of Paris museum in the Marais, is finally going to reopen (as soon as museums are allowed to reopen) after four years of renovations and a complete overhaul of their collections. It’s always been one of my favorite underrated museums in Paris, but from what I’ve seen in the press releases so far, it looks like they’ve done a great job. There’s even a new section dedicated to the Paris Commune, which took place 150 years ago this March. I’ll be first in line!
Day by Day on the Rue Mouffetard (there are other locations in Paris) is my favorite bulk food and toiletry shop. They have all the usual nuts, pastas, cereals, cookies, teas, coffee, and spices you find in bulk all over Paris now, but they also have vats of hazelnut or chocolate spread, apple cider vinegar, mustard and ketchup, and wine. And for the home, there’s 14% white vinegar, baking soda and other cleaning ingredients, shampoos, soaps, and dishwashing and laundry detergent, and pet food. You can bring your own containers or buy theirs (there are also free ones people donate). And I find the prices so much cheaper than similar stores I’ve shopped in Paris. Totally worth a visit if you live in Paris.
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