An aussie in St. Louis
May 26, 2010 12:06 AM   Subscribe

I'm moving to St. Louis to do my PhD at Washington University. What should an aussie know?

I'll be there starting from late July, but I don't even know where to begin. I have never lived in the states for an extended period of time, so I don't know anything about how to interface with anything/one there.

My list of basic questions include: Do I need a car (I will have free access to public transport courtesy of the university)? Where should I live? What do I need to watch out for when looking to rent an apartment (I am the only one who is going, so studio or 1 bedroom)? What are my obligations to government (like local taxes or levies)? What cell phone company should I go with?

Assume my visa will be worked out, and I have just enough money to support myself.

I have read many previous posts on STL, but they focused on touristy things, and not on everyday living things. Would appreciate your help.
posted by butwheresthesushi to Work & Money (12 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I assume you've already checked out the university information for new international students, right? If not, start here
posted by jacalata at 1:09 AM on May 26, 2010

Best answer: you can get by w/o a car but stl is a big driving city, i will admit. public transit is passable but not great. the metrolink does have stops by the university but isn't very wide-ranging -- the bus is, but the timing isn't fantastic. stl is pretty sprawl-y, though as a grad student, the chances you'd head west to the suburbs are pretty slim -- i suspect you'd be more interested in heading east into the city.

if you won't have a car, i'd suggest living fairly close to campus -- will you be at hilltop/danforth or at the med school? if the former, living in university city (especially the area referred to as the loop) would be pretty close; there's lots of university-owned housing there, too, though it's probably pretty overpriced. (wash u owns a lot of 4- & 6-family buildings in the area, though, so they drove rents up in general.) you could also look in the demun area or even richmond heights & maplewood (within biking distance & also with metrolink stops nearby). if you'll be at the med school, you'll probably want to live in the central west end area. if you'll have a car, i recommend south city for cheaper rents (& neat older buildings), but the metrolink doesn't go that far south so it would make your commute more of a hassle.

not sure how taxes will work for you as an aussie, so someone with the university is probably better equipped to field that one.

cell phone options are at&t, verizon, & t-mobile. i don't think there are any major issues with any of them beyond cell phone companies generally sucking & being predatory.

i've lived in stl my whole life, i attended was u as an undergrad about ten years ago, i till recently lived very nearby, & i currently work for the med school, so i'm happy to answer any other questions you might have -- feel free to memail me!
posted by oh really at 1:13 AM on May 26, 2010

I did a postdoc in California. My experience would lead me to suggest the following answers to your questions.

1) Don't bother with a car: public transport is probably better than you're used to in Australia and taxis are cheap. Maybe think about a push-bike? Of course, whether or not you need a car depends upon where you live...

2) Live close to where you work: I lived 2 blocks from work and it was absolutely brilliant. When you choose where to live do some research on the walkability of the area ( You will be able to walk to work, shops, pubs etc etc and this will make a huge difference to how you spend your time.

3) Renting an apartment: Do you want to live alone or with others. I lived in a studio (because I was a postdoc), but you might want to look into share-housing with other grad students. It's a brilliant way to find a place within your community.

4) Taxes etc: you do need to pay tax and - for an Australian - the system is utterly confusing. I recommend getting an accountant when the time comes to putting in your tax refund.

5) Cell phone company: I was on a pre-paid phone and I used "O2 Wireless" (which supported international texting). But I hear T-Mobile is decent for a contract.

In any case, congratulations - you're going to have a ball!
posted by Alice Russel-Wallace at 1:13 AM on May 26, 2010

Best answer: I would suggest buying an over-the-counter Tracfone and phone card available at many stores when you arrive before getting involved with any diabolocal long-term phone contracts. After you settle in and know more people, follow some of the phone advice herewith or ask around about the best phone plans.
posted by Elsie at 2:42 AM on May 26, 2010

1) You'll probably live in the Loop, which is adjacent to the Wash U Campus. So a car is not necessary. However, if you plan to get out of that area, a car may be required. St. Louis's public transit pretty much blows (and I say that as a lifetime St. Louisan).
2) Regarding that apartment you'll need to get, you want to talk to the school about listings or temp housing until you can get things sorted out. Many apartments in the area have leases that start with the start of school. If you need anything from someone on the ground in StL, I can help on that front. Memail me.

Taxes: yep, you'll have to pay 'em.
Phone: they're all bastards. We've got Verizon, which is as good or bad as anyone.

(If I think of anything else, I'll come back)
posted by notsnot at 4:20 AM on May 26, 2010

My brother is getting his MA at WU, so here's what I know:

Do I need a car (I will have free access to public transport courtesy of the university)?

No. My brother uses the buses and the subway and gets on fine.

Where should I live?

The area around the university is University City (I think), and it's very nice. That's where my brother lives. He has a single-bedroom apartment (no roommate) and pays $600 a month.
posted by canadia at 5:01 AM on May 26, 2010

St. Louis native here - now living in Chicago. Chicago is a city that doesn't require a car in. I'm sure that you can do St. Louis car-free for the duration of your education, but I've never known anybody who hasn't given up on the idea, broken down, and bought a car as soon as they could afford it. Just look in the Post-Dispatch for a cheap older car when you feel a little more settled. It can't hurt to spend a little time getting to know Metrolink (or whatever they're calling it now).

The issue of housing has more to do with being a grad student than with being in St. Louis. I like having a roommate - it keeps you from self-isolation and if you're friendly, it's nice to have someone to eat with. Downsides of roommates still apply, though. Don't do a studio if you can afford it. It's nice to be able to shut a door and go somewhere else, even if you can't leave your apartment.

As far as location, the area immediately surrounding U. City is nice, and Central West End is one of the nicer city neighborhoods. Having a car will obviously open you up to being able to live in different places, which might be better and cheaper for you, especially if you find yourself not wanting to be surrounded by people from the university.

Things to do while you're there: City Museum, the Zoo (amazing and FREE), frozen custard (Ted Drewes' is the classic, but Fritz's and Silky's also good), Art Museum (around since the 1904 World's Fair), Botanical Gardens. Cardinal baseball is huge, and the games are tons of fun - make sure you go to a couple, even if baseball isn't your thing.

St. Louisans are an interesting bunch. People are generally pretty friendly, of the "talk to strangers in line at the grocery" persuasion, and will give you directions if you look lost. Now that I live in a place where that isn't always true, I sort of miss it.
posted by honeybee413 at 5:34 AM on May 26, 2010

Best answer: I went there, didn't have a car those four years—but I also lived on campus that entire time. Once I moved off campus, I still didn't have a car for the first year and a half, and MetroLink got me where I needed to be just fine. But it did limit my job search a bit, and socially, not having a car did get a bit frustrating; yeah, MetroLink and the bus can get you a lot of places, and as a Wash. U. student, you'll have a MetroCard that gives you free access to them, but it can be frustrating always having to bum rides off of friends/coworkers when you want to go one of the many places the Metro system doesn't reach, especially if you don't live in the same area they do. So: You don't need a car at first, but you might consider buying one eventually. I'd say wait and see.

If you're doing a Ph.D., I would guess you're going to be learning/working on the Danforth Campus, i.e. what they used to call main campus, which straddles the line between Clayton and University City. If so, I'd suggest 1) living north of the Loop, 2) living northeast of campus by Kaldi's (Skinker and Forest Park), 3) living west of campus in the Clayton neighborhoods off Forsyth and Wydown, 4) living south of campus (north of Wydown) in the DeMun neighborhood, or 5) living in the Central West End and MetroLinking it to and from campus via the Central West End station, which is sort of in the midst of the med school.

I'm no longer a student and work elsewhere now, but I still live north of the Loop—my rent is awesome, there's good food nearby when I want it, and I live a quick drive/MetroLink ride from most places I want to go. This is my landlord; they're really good people, and have apartments available in all the places I mentioned. They mainly rent to students, and have a quiet building policy in most, if not all, of their buildings. I'd also suggest checking out the resources for Wash. U. grad students here, as well as the Quadrangle Housing page here. As you can see, they own a ton of properties around here, and the rents are really good. (Many others in the community are less thrilled about this, you'll learn, as Wash. U. doesn't pay taxes on its properties, which means that as the university expands, it increasingly drains the area's tax base.)

Grocerywise, the DeMun neighborhood and my neighborhood north of the Loop are closest to the two Schnucks stores near main campus; I don't know what the grocery situation is right now in the Central West End.

Cellphonewise, if you're on the Danforth Campus, I don't think you can go wrong with T-Mobile. When I first got a cellphone while a student there in 2005, I surveyed all my cellphone-carrying friends about what got good coverage/reception around campus, and the consensus was either Sprint or T-Mobile. I went with T-Mobile; I had friends with Sprint who got calls on campus just fine, but never got a signal in their off-campus apartments. FYI, there's a T-Mobile store just north of campus on the Loop. As I learned only a few years after I'd gone with T-Mobile, apparently AT&T has really good coverage here, too, and with them you get rollover minutes—also, I know they have a discount for Wash. U. students, or did a couple of years ago.

Finally, you should let us all know when you're in town and settled, and we can have a meetup!

Oh, and P.S.: Be nice to the people at the campus bookstore, especially the gals in the textbook department. (I used to work there, and man do they get a lot of crap from snotty undergrads. A nice grad student would be a breath of fresh air.)
posted by limeonaire at 6:12 AM on May 26, 2010

Best answer: St. Louis is more or less in the American midwest, and midwesterners like to feed people. Especially foreigners. It's how we show hospitality. Being invited to someone's home, especially for a meal, is very normal. (In some parts of the country, and in some other English-speaking cultures, it's more normal to meet out for socializing.) You should take advantage of this, particularly for American Thanksgiving where there will probably be a competition to invite you to SOME big event (either "back home" with family or at the university for a big celebration) because everyone needs a family on Thanksgiving! Yes, people really, really mean it when they invite you to come stay at their parents' for four days over Thanksgiving.

Like many cities on the plains, St. Louis is fairly hot in the summer and fairly cold in the winter. Average high in July is 33*C; average low in January is -6*C. People from coastal climates are often unprepared for these temperature extremes. The L.L. Bean catalog (and online store) is your friend for winterwear (when I was in college we used to save it for all the Floridians who'd never seen snow before and had adorable "winter" jackets they got in Florida). We get cutting winds on the prairies and Great Plains, that race right down from the North Pole through Saskatchewan with not a damn thing to slow them down or warm them up, so you will want a winter coat that covers your thighs. (You're just a LOT warmer when your thighs and butt are covered!)

If you work, you will owe taxes to the state and federal government. Luckily, your employers will mail you forms (a W-2 is the standard one for a regular employee) saying how much you made, if any money was "withheld" (already sent to the government for your tax obligation), etc. It is then your responsibility to get the proper tax forms -- usually one state, one federal -- and mail those to the government, either with your payment or claiming money back. But!!! The international student center will ALMOST CERTAINLY have free tax help for foreign students, and chances are you'll make little enough money to qualify for free tax assistance if they don't provide it through the university.

As a renter, you will not be responsible for property taxes (though you'll certainly be paying them via your rent, you will never have to deal with that directly), and various taxes and fees for utilities will be rolled into your utility bills. If there are any municipal taxes or fees that you will have to pay personally relating to your residence (my municipality has a $6 garbage fee, for example, which has to do with the difference between taxes and fees and is stupid), your landlord should let you know about them. Most of them will probably be rolled into your rent unless you're renting a single-family home or something.

People will love your accent and strangers in stores will be extra nice to you because of it. If you really want to delight people, you should periodically say, "That's not a knife. THIS is a knife." Because they're all sort-of dying to ask you to say it but that would be rude.

Midwestern culture as a whole is somewhat circumspect; what you do behind closed doors is your business, but in public people expect a certain standard of politeness. If people think you're being unbearably rude, they generally won't TELL you that; they'll just make noncommital comments and try gentle to change the topic. (They won't hold it against you at first, but if you keep it up, they will eventually simply stop inviting you places.) If they're making fun of you, they like you, and if they're teasing you about something, that thing was okay. If it was really horrific, they simply won't ever discuss it with you again.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:51 AM on May 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Echoing that a car isn't totally neccessary, but you're going to want one pretty bad. St. Louis is pretty spread out. But I would suggest getting a bike, using the bus/metro and see how it feels after a month or two.
posted by saul wright at 8:49 AM on May 26, 2010

Best answer: Everything that Eyebrows McGee has said is true and as a Midwesterner born & raised in Iowa (just north of Missouri), I'd also like to add that it's generally much more of a Guess culture than an Ask culture, with all that that entails. I'm not sure how much that changes because of St Louis being a big city, but specifically, I have to give a big hell yeah to Eyebrow's McGee Midwestern culture as a whole is somewhat circumspect; what you do behind closed doors is your business, but in public people expect a certain standard of politeness.

I also want to second the notion that everyone will love you because of your accent and if you're ALSO polite you'll also have more invitations than you know what to do with.

The only other advice related to politeness that I can give you is to never ever tell someone they're being rude unless you want that person to shut up and completely stop talking to you, possibly forever. Sometimes that IS what you want, sometimes you just wanted to say "hey, that's a little rude" if they're asking you to do a Crocodile Dundee impression for the twelfth time, but again, the politeness thing, saying someone is rude is like saying they just slapped their own grandmother.

I wholeheartedly agree with the Thanksgiving comment--I know it seems crazy, but yes, people will really mean it when they say that their parents would be delighted to have you, a total stranger, come and stay in their house for four days just so they can overfeed you. It's probably inexplicable but if I were you, I'd take advantage of it.

Do you have health insurance that will cover you in the States? If you don't, will you need to get it privately or might you have it through the university? This is an important consideration. Remember you're coming to the United States, land of the uninsured. Generally universities have student health medical centers where general practitioners do non-urgent care, and I'd be shocked if WU didn't, but if you have an emergency and you don't have insurance, your bill could be in the tens of thousands of dollars quite easily.

If I were you, I'd try looking for a long-stay motel in the area near the university for your first month here, and then apartment hunt while I was actually in town and have my stuff shipped over after I got an apartment. That's just my personal preference but it's certainly an option if you're having trouble finding something decent to rent online.

In general, you might be surprised and think everyone is bending over backwards for you but that's just how we do stuff here. If you say you have to get some place, don't be surprised if you're offered a ride. If you actually have to ask for something, you're almost certainly going to get it if the person can give it to you, because the other person assumes that if you go so far as to ask, your need is dire.
posted by saveyoursanity at 6:53 PM on May 26, 2010

BTW, it occurs to me that if you're doing any sort of researched-based Ph.D. in, say, biology or biochem, you may well be based on the Central West End med-school campus. You might make sure where you'll be spending most of your time before you pin down where to live!
posted by limeonaire at 5:35 AM on May 27, 2010

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