Imagine a sunny August evening in the late 90s, somewhere in the Ochota district of Warsaw. The air in the social housing complexes is boiling hot, despite the asbestos-insulated walls. Suddenly, the sound can be heard from the distance. An unmistakable, distorted melody is drills into the ears of the adults, but it seems to have a much less debilitating effect on the children. On the contrary – their reaction is downright Pavlovian. With eyes wide open and tongues lolling they beg their parents for money, and run off chasing the ice cream van.
The tune of Family Frost – the biggest company in eastern Europe selling frozen goods directly on the streets – is engraved in the collective memory of an entire generation that grew up in Poland in the 90s and early 2000s. But it's not an exclusively Polish phenomenon – in fact, they can be found everywhere in Europe. Well, maybe not everywhere; there are some places where there simply isn't enough demand. Take Italy: why bother with an ice cream van, when you can get delicious gelato on every other corner?
Ice cream vans have a long history in the UK, where flavoured ice was distributed by horse-drawn carts as far back as the 19th century. In the 50s, the business got motorised. That's also when the first chimes started to peeve parents and cheer up children all at the same time. In the 80s, ice cream vans got tangled up with crime during the Glasgow Ice Cream Wars. Flashy vehicles selling guns and drugs instead of frozen delicacies became a cultural reference, and earned a local police unit a nickname – the "Serious Chimes Squad."
Given the rich tradition, it 's no surprise that the most popular chime in the UK is Greensleeves: a composition attributed to Henry VIII that dates back to the 16th century, and makes sure every child gets a history lesson with their ice cream.
In the south of Europe ice cream vans traditions, if they exist, are local. On the island of Noirmoutier on the atlantic coast of France, Marco Abregel has driven the same route for over 40 years. However, most of the French people we spoke to didn't have any memories about vendeurs de glace.
Scandinavia, however, is quite another story. Scandinavians share a common childhood memory of a characteristic blue ice cream van. It belongs to a Swedish company called Hemglass, which has been distributing ice cream since the 1960s and has systematically conquered the markets of its neighbours. While in Sweden Glassbil can still be spotted on the occasional sunny day, in Finland the company stopped being profitable, and the last Jäätelöauto of its kind played its final tune in 2013.
That brings us to a sombre conclusion. Ice cream vans are more and more scarce in Europe. Whether we lay the blame on the expansion of supermarkets, or car emission regulations, we will soon have to accept that the wailing chimes of our childhood are a mere nostalgic memory.
Go ahead and listen to them, while you still can! (click on a cone to play the melody)