Lake Como, Cinque Terre, Portofino, Milan and More


 I came home sleep-deprived, exhausted, and sore ... but damn, was it worth it! From the time Elena picked me up from the airport in Milan, it was go, go go!

If you're new around here, Elena was my first ever Aupair. An Aupair is someone from another country who comes to live with you and study in exchange for child care. During Elena's two and a half years with our family, she became like a sister to me. She cared for and loved my boys as I would. She was there when I needed a shoulder to cry on, and she was my biggest cheerleader (next to my husband Dallas).

I am typically a big control freak and micro-manage vacation itineraries, but Elena is as type A as I am, so I knew I was in good hands, letting her plan every detail of our "best friend's trip."

Elena picked me up in Milan, and we immediately headed for Lake Como to kick off our trip. After 2 days, it was on to Cinque Terre, where we visited all 5 towns that make up the cluster of perfectly nestled coastal villages. Then as we drove the coast in route to Elena's hometown of Biella, we decided to call an audible and stop in Santa Margarita and Portofino and it was worth the detour! Portofino might have been my favorite part of our entire trip. It was unexpected and glamorous.

After hiking to the castle where Kourtney Kardashian got married in Portofino, we hopped back in the car and headed inland to Biella, where we arrived just in time for dinner. Mind you; dinner is a little later than what we eat in the states, about 9 pm. For dinner that night we attended a town festival that was raising money for autism (a cause close to my heart). After eating a plate full of local "street meat" we danced the night away to American 90's music. The dance floor (aka the town square) was packed! These cats really know how to throw down!

The next morning, Elena showed me her hometown and took me on a beautiful hike to a quaint mountain top restaurant for lunch. I got to meet all of Elena's family and friends, who were as warm and welcoming as she is! 

Before we departed for our final destination of Milan, Elena's parents took us for a fabulous 5-course pairing wine dinner at a Michelin star restaurant. I was so thankful to spend a lovely evening with them and thank them for loaning me their incredible daughter for two and a half years.

The next morning we piled into the car and hit the road to Milan. Where we spent my last 24 hours in Italy.

During our time in Milan, something special happened. I got to meet my next Aupair in person! That NEVER happens. Typically, even after you match,  a host family doesn't get to meet their Aupair in person until he or she arrives at their home. Chiara was sweet enough to jump on a train and meet Elena and me for lunch. What a special moment to be able to host lunch for my first Aupair and my next Aupair in their home country. I felt like I had to keep my heart from exploding out of my chest! 

 I have been to Italy 5 times now; Rome, Florance, Venice, Tuscany, Orvieto, Amalfi, Positano, and Naples. And although all of these places have been amazing in their own way nothing will compair to this trip. What a way to close out one of the best trips of my life.

Since I have been home, everyone asks me "What is your favorite part of the experience?" And to that I always answer, "I can't pick just one". Each place that I experienced on this journey were all so different and special in their own right. 

I have always dreamed of visiting Lake Como. Everyone told me to go to Cinque Terre (and it did NOT disappoint). Portofino has a glamour and charm that I was not expecting, Milan has so much history and visiting Elena's hometown was like finishing a puzzle you have worked on for years. So no I cannot pick a favorite place, but they will all live in my heart!  

Ciao Bella!

Saying Hello To A New Au Pair


As a first-time host family with Cultural Care Au Pair, everything was new to us: the interview process, the nerves of hiring someone before ever meeting them in person, and the part of learning to live with someone outside of your immediate family. When we started this journey, I found myself constantly saying a silent little prayer that everything would work out, and it did. 

What I remember most about that time period was how new and exciting it was for all of us! However, two and a half years later, the actual details from welcoming our first au pair had become a bit fuzzy. I had to sit down to recall all of the things we learned as a first-time host family to help us better embrace our second au pair, Laura. 

I think it's easy to forget all of the things that your new au pair needs to know when you get comfortable like how to run the dishwasher or using the washer and dryer. Some au pairs come from countries where line drying is more popular than owning an electric dryer. 

Of course, showing your au pair around your house and neighborhood is important, but so is showing them how your local grocery store is set up and finding out what snacks they prefer. The more you can do to make them feel welcome the faster everyone will settle in. Our family even went as far as getting our au pairs a few driving lessons to make sure they were at ease to take their driver's test.  

One more key factor to remember is that no two people or au pair will be alike. It's important not to compare. Refrain from making comments like, "well so and so use to do it like this". Give them time, and remember this is a first for them. Each au pair may have a different way of doing things, learning, or showering your children with love. All of these things take time but your au pair will find what works best for him or her. 

Of course, another important item to cross off your list is updating your host family handbook with the latest emergency contacts, house rules, expectations, schedules, and curfews. You may want to change a few things from your first year since there is a learning curve for host families and au pairs alike.

Since your au pair will likely bring your family little things that represent or remind them of their country, we like to do the same. Our family puts together a little basket of local snacks and goodies for our au pair to be greeted with when they first walk into their room.

However, I would say that the most important thing that I have learned along the way is that first impressions are key. It is very important that whoever you choose feels loved and welcomed from the very start. Here are some things that I did to our au pair’s room to make sure she felt comfortable and special from go.  

I was sure to clean up and clean out her room well. I didn't want her to find a bunch of little things that belonged to our first au pair. Whatever our first au pair left behind was donated so Laura didn't feel like she was moving into someone else's room. I wanted her to feel like this space was hers. 

I also went to her Cultural Care Au Pair profile and Facebook page and printed out photos of her and her family for frames around her room and pinboard in her hallway. Then, I framed our wifi network and password so that she immediately had the information and was able to log on and contact her family to let them know she arrived safely. 

Additionally, I stocked her bathroom with little things like nail polish remover, q-tips, hair ties, bath bombs, and a robe to give the room a warm and homey feel. 

If you are a first-time host family saying goodbye to one au pair and hello to another,  I know it can be hard to divide your feelings. You feel sadness when one au pair departs. Some families might even feel an allegiance to the person leaving, but instead of thinking about "losing" someone, think of it as adding to your family. I've always wanted this experience to be like joining a sorority. A link of friendship from one au pair to another with their common thread being our family. 

Our Staycation On Lake Norman



This last month was hard on my family with our long-time Aupair's departure. Our bond was so strong and our goodbye so devastating for us and the kids. I wanted to give everyone a little distraction, so we booked a staycation! 

We have actually never done this with the kids before. We would normally hop on an Allegiant flight and head to my mom's house in Florida, but this was so much easier! No flights to catch. No car seats to haul. No strollers to break during plane-side check. 

We found our perfect vacation destination right here on Lake Norman. I had no idea this even existed (outside of Airbnb or VRBO), but there is a company called Southern Charm Vacations. They rent out vacation homes all over Lake Norman and Asheville! They specialize in beautiful lakefront and mountain properties in the Carolinas!

Living in Ballantyne, our family doesn't make it to the lake much. We don't have a boat of our own, so we don't typically have a reason to go but it's so close! Lake Norman is truly one of Charlotte's precious gems. They have lakefront restaurants, like Toucans and Hello Sailor, beautiful coves, and great beaches for the kids to play on! 

When we started planning our staycation I never thought we would be able to find a house to sleep our 14-person posse, so we were pleasantly surprised when we found a lakefront home that slept 17! Booking our vacation was so simple. When you go to you can either put in your dates or browse a list of homes and plan your vacation accordingly. 

Personally, I think it was easier to book than Airbnb or VRBO because there is a phone number on the site for any questions you might have about the property. Plus, it's one management company taking care of all the properties so you don't have to wonder about their quality of clean or care. (Let's just say I've had some bad Airbnb experiences). Southern Charm was fully staffed, responsive, and super hands-on throughout the whole process. 

Check-in was 4pm and the house was pristine! You could tell that someone from the company had personally walked through and check the house before we got there. I guess that is the benefit of working with a small business... personal touch. 

Our weekend was so relaxing. We spent our time napping in hammocks, enjoying family dinners, and getting competitive in the game room! We also spent afternoons on the pontoon boat. I think this might be my favorite feature that Southern Charm offers. We were able to add a pontoon boat to our rental. The boat was delivered right to our dock and was already there at check-in. 

In fact, Southern Charm offers a whole concierge service where they can help you find anything from a chef to a personal trainer to use during your stay. They can even fully stock your refrigerator so you don't have to drag coolers and groceries to your destination.

I really do love the concept that Southern charm provides! It's great for renters and owners! Owners can ease their worries knowing they have a company managing their property while sitting back and receiving passive income and renters like us can take advantage of their good fortune!  

Arrivederci To Our Sweet Elena



As I sit here with a box of tissues, it is an understatement when I say, " I am not ready to write this blog." 

How have 913 days passed since our sweet, vivacious Elena came crashing into our lives? I remember picking her up from the airport like it was (legit) yesterday. I was late (of course) and she was patiently waiting for me in the baggage claim area at the Charlotte Douglas International Airport. She smiled warmly at me as I walked up to her and she gave me the biggest hug, melting away both of our fears. Neither of us knew exactly what we were getting ourselves into. I was inviting a complete stranger into my home to live with my family and she was leaving behind everything she called "home". 

However, in the most unlikely of ways, we fit each other's puzzle perfectly. She quickly merged into our family seamlessly, like she was always here, and now I can't imagine our life without her. She is the most AMAZING person and caretaker for Cashton and Jaxson and she has truly become my best friend. 

Many have asked, "will we get another Cultural Aupair?" The answer is yes, but Elena will forever have a place in our hearts as our "first". She taught me exactly what this program is all about. When I signed up to host an Aupair I thought it would be a "cool" cultural exchange for us and the kids, while solving our childcare needs. Little did I know my party of four was about to become Strager -Party of Five with Elena at the helm! 

Sure, I didn't learn one lick of Italian while she was here (which was one of my goals... I even took an Italian language class that I failed out of) but I learned a new love that my heart didn't know before and for that I am eternally grateful. 

Elena has touched so many people during her time in the USA, that includes not only our immediate family but our extended family as well. You know a person really has a special soul when family members from all over the US from Montana to Florida go out of their way to spend time with her. It's easy to see how Elena has made so many friends along the way and has even won the hearts of our Kiss 95.1 listener family too. 

Elena has been there for me in ways that not many others have. She knows a side of me that few will ever see. She can sense when I am stressed or something is weighing on me and she knows just how to brighten my day. We instinctively know what each other is thinking before either one of us ever opens our mouths and her love is felt by just a look. In short, she has become the sister I never had and I truly know she will ALWAYS be family now.  

She has been so instrumental in Cash's development, Jaxson's joy, my laughter, Dallas's sanity, and for truly making our house feel like a home. She completes our family in a way that is hard to understand from the outside looking in, but to us, she will ALWAYS be a Strager. 

She is a woman of strength and many talents and I can't wait to see what the future has in store for her. As we say our "see you laters" I say countless prayers that Cashton continues to thrive and that Jaxson remembers her. I pray that she will visit often and that we can take the children to visit their "extended family" in Italy one day. And I pray that we have made a profound, lifelong impact on each other's life and path in this world. 

Thank you Elena, for 2.5 of the best years I could have asked for (even with covid). I love you so much and I hope you truly know how much you mean to me and our family.  

Don't cry because it's over. Smile because it happened. 

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