Cold comfort in Istanbul

Halfway down Istiklal Caddesi, in a narrow shop window facing the Turkish Delight emporium, is the most annoying ice-cream vendor in Istanbul and probably the world. Ice-cream vendors should be agents of happiness, dispensers of sweet, cold clouds of solace and joy. This guy should thank his lucky stars every day that the Turkish people haven’t yet risen in protest against him.

I wanted some ice cream because it had been a hard day in Turkey. On the Galata Bridge across the Golden Horn that morning I leant over between the anglers to take a picture of the men in white overalls who sell fried fish sandwiches, and my brand-new lens fell off the end of the camera and into the Sea of Marmara. In the Basilica Cistern, where the water is an oily mirror in the green darkness between the colonnades and stone carvings, I dropped my hotel room key with a deep splash in front of the Medusa head. In the afternoon I stopped at a carpet shop for a glass of free raki and accidentally bought a rug so big I’d have to cut it in half to fit into my house, and so expensive it should come with a guarantee that if ever it’s taken Liam Neeson will abandon his family to their own devices and rush to get it back.

Normally I like Istiklal Caddesi. It’s a pedestrianised street that runs down through the Beyoglu district from Taksim Square, lined with Ottoman and Deco buildings and filled with so many happily strolling people and so much zinging energy that on a crisp violet April evening just being there is like a shot of strong coffee. But when you’ve lost half your camera and your keys and bought something you can’t afford and you’re already a little hungover from whatever was in those rakis, it’s not strong coffee you want, it’s ice cream.

I came jostling through the crowds, sidestepping Turks, shoulder-charging a German, trampled by a battalion of Russian ladies on a hen’s night. Turkish ice cream is creamy and elastic, made with goat’s milk and dried orchids, pulled from metal vats in heavy loops like Prestik. It was the answer to my troubles.

The vendor in the window was dressed in an ornate waistcoat and a little round hat like chimpanzees used to wear. I asked for a cone. A semi-circle of citizens formed around me, grinning expectantly. This is odd, I thought. Since when is buying ice cream a spectator sport? Don’t you guys have TVs?

The man in the monkey hat put a scoop on a cone. I took it, but when I looked up he still held it and I had an empty cone in my hands. The crowd laughed. Oh, very good. You had a dummy cone outside the empty cone, and you have tricked me. Excellent. I smiled politely and reached out for the original cone. He held it out then as my fingers closed around it he took it away again. The crowd hooted with delight. This is great. I want a consoling ice cream and all I get for my money is something Steven Kenton did when we were 12 and I asked him to pass the Tipp-Ex.

He held it out again and I reached again and he did some manouevre where at the last minute he turned the cone upside down, then the right way round, then upside down again. Oh, how the crowd loved it. There was hooting and applause. I heard someone say, ‘Is he American? He looks American.’

Fantastic. It’s not bad enough that Kamal’s making me resemble a slow-witted child, but now I have the indignity of looking like a Yank. I turned away in a huff but the man in the chimp outfit shouted after me: ‘No, my friend! Don’t be angry! We are just playing! Here is your ice cream!’ and the crowd all tutted and looked disapprovingly at me, so I was shamed into turning back.

He held out the cone with a smile and I reached for it and he pretended to give it to me but somehow left me holding a paper napkin. The crowd roared. This was the best show they’d ever seen. And that’s when I leaned in and grabbed Kamal and pulled him half out the window and bellowed in his face: ‘Just give me my damn ice cream, okay?! Right now!’

As I walked away, licking my ice cream, feeling slightly ashamed, I overheard someone muttering to the person beside them: ‘He must be South African.’

Getaway, 27 October 2014