WHITE, WHITE NIGHTS. We don’t sleep much these days. The children play in the parks until 10 pm or later, and the evening light on the lush leaves of the park trees is just stunning. Sometimes I forget that I am in Estonia, and feel as if I have been relocated to California, to those grassy hills outside Palo Alto, where the ponies run at the ranches between the tech company headquarters.
But other ponies are on my mind at the parks in Tartu: little plastic ponies. They come in a variety of sizes, some as tiny as my thumb, others a palm-full, and others as big as my hand. All of them have that lovely rubbery feel that Asian manufacturers have perfected, and that articles have warned me might actually be toxic and lead to hyperactivity or even some peculiar diseases. No matter. They come in pastel-beautiful colors and have wonderful names: Fluttershy, Rainbow Dash, Twilight Sparkle, Applejack. The leader of these ponies is an “alicorn,” so called because it has wings like Pegasus and the horn of a unicorn. This one is known as Princess Celestia.
That’s right. I’m an expert.
The reason they are on my mind at the park is because one of them typically gets left behind. All kinds of things get left at the park. It’s not unusual. Socks. Ice creams. Bicycles. But if one of these ponies gets left behind, then Maria will bawl and quake like Mount Vesuvius.
“WHERE IS MY PRINCESS CELESTIA?”
That’s when her father leads a reconnaissance mission to recover the toys. They are usually found. Yet they reveal what is most important to my daughters’ generation. My Little Pony. They care about their sisters, and they even care about their country, at least when they have to sing about it. They also care about Shopkins and Littlest Pet Shops. When Estonians say Pet Shops,“Petšopid,” I think it’s so adorable, because it sounds the same way they say ketchup, “ketšupit.”
My Little Pony though is their secret religion. This is the animated world they live in. It’s what they dream about. Princess Celestia. Applejack. It’s what connects them not only to all other Estonian girls. Wherever they are, they share a common faith: My Little Pony.
Four-year-old Maria once drew an image of the iconic ponies at preschool. They were stick figures, differentiated by their colors, one was yellow, another rainbow. When I showed the child’s drawings to my eldest daughter Marta, now 12, she could identify each pony immediately. “That one’s Applejack, that one is Twilight Sparkle. But, hmm, she left out Rarity and Pinkie Pie.”
So maybe I am not the greatest expert. But I am trying. Sometimes they quiz me about my pony knowledge. “Here are four ponies, can you name them?” asked Anna, lining up the toys.
“Hmm, let me see,” I began to examine them. “Is this one Apple Pancake?”
“It’s Applejack, you dummy,” said Anna, aged 8. “Everybody knows that.”
“Of course, of course. I’m so sorry. And is this one called Butter Dash?”
“It’s Twilight Sparkle, silly! Oh my God! Didn’t anyone ever teach you anything?”
“Oh, that’s right, I see it now. Twilight Sparkle has little stars on its butt.”
“That’s its Cutie Mark!” A groan. “How could you not know this stuff?”
How could I not know? It’s common knowledge for them. Sometimes I wonder if the little Estonian girls have taken their love for My Little Pony to some other, bizarre trough of fandom though. Sometimes I wonder if there is some deep Eurasian component to this next-level obsession. Maybe the reason the Estonian children respond so well to the toys manufactured in East Asia is because they are Asian themselves. I have noticed this trend among my elder daughter’s peers, who are all infatuated with Pokemon and Japanese anime. It’s true that American youth also like these things. But Estonian youth really, really, really like them. They find the look of the toys pleasing. The shapes, the symbols.
Something else is going on here.
In this way, I have come to see the Estonian children’s cult of My Little Pony as just another of one of those Estonian things, like grilling Armenian šašlõkk all summer long or getting into really emotional arguments about Eurovision. That it originated elsewhere is no matter. They have adopted them as their own.