If you haven't met me yet, there's one thing you should know before you do: I talk about my hometown a lot. 

Before you even go any further in this article, please familiarize yourself with the following map. Take a long, hard look at the red checkmark where Omaha is on the map, and look where it is in comparison to Minnesota. Then look at where it is in comparison to Iowa. Got an idea of where it is now? Good, you may keep reading. 

I have a strange relationship with it that, truth be told. I'm still trying to figure out myself. I spent my entire life up until now in Omaha, Nebraska, a not so small but not so big town of 434,353 people and counting. During my middle school and early high school years, I started picking apart my hometown piece by piece for all its faults (as per any angsty teen novel). We're known for our corn due to our eclectic love for our state university's football team name, the Nebraska Cornhuskers (although truth be told, Iowa has us beat when it comes to corn....sadly). We have a deep passion as a state for football and will travel almost anywhere for a game (I kid you not, I saw more Nebraska fans at the Nebraska v Minnesota game during parent weekend). Also, it takes you 15 minutes to get anywhere in Omaha, but if you don't have a car, you're SOL. 

I could keep going on about all the faults I pointed out for myself during my younger years, but I should point out what made me grow a soft spot for my hometown. I realized quickly during my junior year that we have a strong arts community, full of both novices to all trades and homespun professionals spreading their talents across the globe. We also have some of the best food you'll ever find in the nation - and you can take that as a positive, or a negative. I'll admit, my roommates and friends from out of state learned in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving Break what Runza is and just how amazing their fries truly are. I may have sent more Snapchats than necessary while getting my Runza fix over break. We're also a tight-knit city; like I said, we're not too big but not too small, so whether or not you know everyone within ten miles of you or not, everyone cares about each other in a very Midwestern fashion. 

When move in was drawing closer and my departure became inevitable, I found my relationship with my hometown was brewing to its boiling point. I didn't really know how I felt about it anymore, and this uncertainty only intensified after I left. I found myself missing some things more than I previously thought and enjoying a life without some of the hassles I had come to hate.  I still found myself debating these points by the time semester ended, but I knew on the flight home that a month of returning to where it all started would only be beneficial for me, and believe me when I say it has. As I'm using my time at home to sort out more of my feelings towards this place, I wanted to show a few of my favorite places back home, and why I'll always find a home in Homaha. 

4. Caffeine Dreams

For every caffeine lover is their first love: their hometown coffee shop. As I mentioned before, Omaha is a hidden treasure trove of eateries, and these gems don't fail to include a variety of coffee shops. Just like in Minneapolis, we have our Starbucks, but we also have Dunkin' Donuts and Scooters chains all throughout the city. Besides our large chains, we have an abundance of small coffee shops, and one of the town's favorites is Caffeine Dreams, a hipster artist's right of passage into the Omaha art community. You'll find teen artists and twenty-something music appreciators mingling with college students and older couples alike in this unique atmosphere. 

When you walk in, the first thing you notice is the clutter, and I mean this in a good way; the shop has prints hanging from local artists on the walls, handmade jewelry and crafts for sale on a nearby shelf, and a large bulletin board above the creamer and sugar with local business names and events. Beyond the front area, couches and tables of all shapes and sizes are occupied to the brim most days, and during warm summer afternoons, the back patio serves as a nature-filled hideaway in the midst of the downtown bustle. 

I think my favorite part of Caffeine Dreams is how loyal the customers are. When I order my coffee, I most often recognize the barista as they talk to one or two customers at the nearby bar area. In fact, one of my favorite band's lead singers, Icky Blossoms, was a barista there for a while, and served me coffee the first time I visited. 

3. The Omaha park(s)

My friend Emily (right) and I at the park after my car accident (photo credit to Mary Elizabeth Hilton)

I might just be channeling my inner Leslie Knope right now, but I have to say it - I have a deep love for going to the park. I did go quite frequently when I was a kid, but my excitement for a nice swing set on a sunny day didn't come around until this past March, just after my car accident. I had fractured my left wrist among other injuries, and with the guilt and pain came stark depression. 

I don't really know if someone googled "ways to make a car crash victim feel better" or in a pain medication induced haze I suggested we visit a park, but two of my best friends invited me to get lunch and go to the park that same week, and somehow, it ended up being one of my favorite memories during my senior year. We always joked about being punks and even though my mom had told me not to strain my injuries too much, I played on the swings and even got on the slide, just like a real punk would (...well, maybe more like a punk in training). 

Going to the park that day was a reminder that my life would be altered after that accident, but not for all bad reasons. When my cast came off two weeks later, and my brace a following two months later, I would be able to lift boxes and wash my hands just like before. I learned that the accident was just an unfortunate bump in the road and nothing more, so long as I didn't dwell on the past and looked forward to the future instead.  

Going to the park became a reoccurring event after that-we made it a joke to visit all the nearby parks, to visit the parks at night, go to the park during lunch, etc. etc. In fact, the second day of winter break, my friends and I made it a point to visit the park again. And even if there was snow and the weather had us shaking in our boots, it was worth it to make the trek - to remember to stay tough, remember that stubbornness to hold onto life that I had to relearn after my accident.

2. Kent Bellows Studio 

This might sound cheesy, but have you ever walked into a place and sworn it was magic? For example, maybe you walked into a church and fell silent at towering pillars and illuminated glass windows, or walked off a nature path and found a hidden grove of some kind? I may be exaggerating a little, but for me, the Kent Bellows Studio is that kind of magic. 

The studio itself is a really unique program for high school teens in Omaha and surrounding areas, and I joined at the beginning of my junior year. Students are paired with a professional mentor in the community, along with two-four other students, and visit the studio twice a week to work on whatever projects they'd like. At the end of a semester (there are 3 in one year: a summer semester, a fall semester and a spring semester), students display their work at an exhibition for the general public and have the opportunity to sell their work to the public.

The studio is really unique in that it not only has this mentoring space on the third floor, but also has a space on the first floor that belongs to the Studio's late owner, Kent Bellows. Kent was an incredible Omaha artist who's work was displayed in Chicago, New York, and other prominent cities, and his photorealism work was unlike anything circulating at the time. He bought the building the Kent Bellows Studio is currently housed in towards the end of his life, and after his passing, his own studio space was kept as it was.   

I owe almost all of who I am as an artist to this place, and I have a special kind of pride in it. I've met some of my best friends here, made some of my best work, and learned what it takes to be not only a successful art student and a successful adult artist, but a well-rounded person and critical thinker of the world around me. This program has only been around for a few years, but it's built a name for itself that isn't going away from the Omaha community anytime soon; I hope it stays that way. 

1. The Old Market

If there's one thing you should know about Omaha, it's split into four very different sections; two of these are East and West Omaha, opposites in almost every way possible. Remember when you read The Great Gatsby and they talked about the whole debate between East Egg and West Egg, and how West Egg was new money and East Egg had old money? It's literally the same exact thing- East Omaha is home to the old money (think Warren Buffet-an Omaha native, by the way, Carlson kids) and West Omaha is home to the new money. I'm impartial to East Omaha for a lot of reasons, but one of the things I love about East Omaha is the Old Market. It's full of a bunch of small businesses with niche markets, small art galleries and coffee shops, and restaurants for big celebrations. The buildings are also some of the oldest in Omaha - a lot of the roads are brick roads used way back when, and some of the buildings are branded with old-fashioned logos from the early 1900's. There's also always something to do. In the summer, you can take a horse-drawn carriage amidst the College World Series crowd, or in the winter, you can go ice skating at the outdoor rink after watching the Christmas lights show going on every day of the week. 

One other fact I love about the Old Market that isn't talked about so much is the strong sense of love and respect for the buildings. Two weeks ago, one of the well-known taverns caught on fire after a gas leak, and soon after, members of the community were stepping in to help the business rebuild after the aftermath. Facebook events for fundraisers were started immediately, and it seemed as if the whole city was sharing in some of the sadness for the lost history. Even though the circumstances were somber, it made me proud to be in a city where everyone cared so deeply about a cornerstone of the community.  It reminded me that no matter how far from my hometown I may be, I will always be a part of Homaha and the people that make it such a tight-knit community.  

Lead image credit: Megan Smith