Coordinates for action

I was in Brussels train station recently waiting for a connecting train to Amsterdam. We had reserved seats on this journey and had a series of coordinates to get us to the right location at the right time to sit in these seats. Our ticket said we were in coach 16 seat 43 (this was on train 9357 but we didn’t need to know that part), which was due to leave Brussels at 16:50. We figured out we were on platform 5. With a little more detective work we found platform 5 had two halves and we were on platform 5A. On platform 5A we needed to be somewhere between sections M and N so coach 16 was near us when the train stopped at the station.

Platform 5 –> Platform 5A –> Section M/N –> Coach 16 –> Seat 43

We were in the right place before the train was due. In fact another train arrived but it was the wrong time and didn’t have a coach 16 so it didn’t match our coordinates. The train after was on time and did match our coordinates.

Being in a foreign place meant we couldn’t form a bigger picture and we were reliant on these seemingly arbitrary coordinates to get us to the right place at the right time. It worked, but it wasn’t without issue. Was platform 5 the same as platform 5A? At the time we couldn’t be sure, we had to go to platform 5A but we could only find a sign to platform 5, so we asked to be sure. Were we in the right place in sections M and N? We couldn’t be sure but we knew it didn’t really matter either, at most we would need to scurry along the platform to the right coach. When the train arrived there were many seats between the doors to enter it and we weren’t sure which door would bring us closest to seat 43, so we guessed.

We constantly use numbers as coordinates for actions, to meet people, and to coordinate our expectations. Think about doctors appointments, flights, addresses, post codes, phone numbers, times, schedules, calendars, deadlines and contracts.

Battleship grid

This picture shows a battleships grid where coordinates are essential

From bus stop D, we caught bus 48 (in the right direction!), and by going along to number 90 on the road where we were staying we found our accommodation but the B&B owner wasn’t in. I called and said we would wait at a bar until about ‘half ten’. In England this means half past ten or 22:30. In the Netherlands and other places on the continent this means ten minus a half or 21:30. The coordinates were wrong!

This reminds me of a story from another friend who advises us not to book restaurants on the hour to save confusion. For example, booking a table for 10, for 7 could mean a table for ten people at 7pm or could mean a table for 7 people at 10pm. If the restaurant thinks the same as you it’s fine, if not you might have a bad booking. Instead if you book if for five past ten for eight it is not ambiguous. Be careful about booking if for half ten though!

I finished writing this at 19:42hrs at 510 17’ 28” N, 00 33’ 54” E heading 700 E at about 180mph (on the Eurostar to St Pancras International).

Update: we got off a station earlier at Ebbsfleet. My girlfriend phoned her parents to get picked up, explained how we had got off at Ebbsfleet, and gave them the earlier time we would be ready to be picked up at the station. The original plan included going to St Pancras to catch a connection to our local station where her parents would collect us. When we got to our local station we wondered where they were, she phoned her parents, and we found out they were waiting at Ebbsfleet.


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