On 2nd April 2015 an historical agreement on the Iranian nuclear program was reached in Lausanne, Switzerland. It came out of the negotiations between the world powers – most notably USA, represented by John Kerry – and the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Three days before that, all the members of the mathematics department of the polytechnical university of Lausanne (EPFL) received an angry email from one of its members. He was complaining because in the last four days his collaborators were regularly stopped while trying to access the library in the Rolex Learning Center, one of the buildings of the university. Those who stopped them – as they stopped everyone else – were security guards, a quite unusual presence in the campus, who forbid the access without further explanation. Even if no communication on the presence of the guards had been given by the administration, everyone at the EPFL had understood by then why they were there.
The Rolex Learning Center is probably the most prestigious building at the EPFL, if only for his shape. To imagine how it looks like, take an A4 sheet of paper, make some small circular holes in it, and then push its short sides while keeping the other two firm on the table. The sheet would lift at some points, and do not move in others, in an irregular sequence of ups and downs. Apart from the library, it hosts studying rooms, a fancy restaurant and a less fancy cafeteria, working rooms for students, a bookshop, a bank, and more. Being a building that does not belong to any faculty, it is to some extent the centre of life at EPFL, and located right at the middle of it. It was impossible not to notice that it had been closed an patrolled, and easy to guess why: if the negotiations between the world powers and Iran come to a positive conclusion, the Rolex Learning Center will be the place designated to announce it.
The morning of the day the agreement was reached, I decided to walk to the Beau Rivage Hotel, where the negotiations were taking place – a classic, for also the Treaty of Lausanne that ended the controversies post-WWI was signed there. With his population of 140.000 people and its relaxed Swiss attitude, Lausanne looks more like a big village than a small city. Starting from the lake, it climbs on the side of a mountain so steep that sometimes in the northern suburbs you still have some snow, while on the lake you can feel Spring coming. I walked 20 minutes down hilly streets to get to Beau Rivage, without noticing any difference from a normal day. The Beau Rivage – a massive Art Déco building, so big and expensive that I always wonder whether it is ever fully booked – is roughly 100 meters from the lake, and has a private street maybe 50 meters long, that was blocked with a barrier. Next to the barrier, a young man with a flashy green jacket was standing. Not a security guard, more like the doorman to whom someone told to move some meters forward. The relaxed atmosphere was enhanced by the pictures published on the Swiss press of John Kerry walking around the streets around the hotel, stopping at groceries and cafés. The 20 Km of Lausanne running competition, to be held in 3 weeks, will probably be noticed more by, and create more troubles to, the Lausannois.
I spent the rest of the day at EPFL as usual – discussing some mathematical problems with colleagues, and then thinking about some others on my own. In the evening, a movie night was scheduled in the department. Slightly before the movie started, rumors spread that an agreement was reached, and that the authorities were gathering at the Rolex Learning Center.
When I arrived in front of the security guards, the Swiss police had joined them, and the press had already entered the building, with the exception of one journalist and his cameramen, that for some reason were not allowed in. Under an increasing rain, he tried to play it cool, telling the camera his ideas about what was going on inside. A small crowd had gathered next to the entrance – most of them were Iranians, who cheered their minister when he entered the building. When it was clear that things were going on inside only, I went back to my office. My window is maybe 50 meters from Rolex Learning Center, but the cries and the music from the students’ pub another 50 meters away were louder than any sound coming from there. Then I went watching the movie – which was, by the way, The meaning of life by Monty Python – and finally left EPFL in a metro full of students and their beers.