PLACENTIA — Jared and Patti Black's fashionable suburban home has all the Christmas trimmings. There are lights outside, and a majestic tree stands in the living room.
The family began their holiday celebration on Christmas Eve with a 5 p.m. church service and then the traditional Cheddar cheese fondu for dinner. It's a typical Christmas at the Black family home--with one exception.
This year, the Blacks are playing host to Mikel Reta, a foreign exchange student from Pampalona, Spain. Reta, 17, played on El Dorado's Empire League championship water polo team.
Reta's mother has always referred to her son as "a fish." He began competing on a club water polo team when he was 10, then matriculated to Spain's junior national team at 16.
This year, the fish is out of water. He became a stranger in a strange land.
At home, Reta would be celebrating three traditional Spanish holidays. First, there is Christmas Day, on which the Retas gather at his uncle's home for a family dinner. Contrary to American custom, no gifts are exchanged this day.
The second holiday is Dec. 31: La Noche Vieja or Old Night, on which family members gather before midnight to eat 12 grapes symbolic of the 12 months that have passed. Afterward, many of Pampalona people dress in costumes and go out to the streets to celebrate a new year.
The third Spanish holiday is Jan. 5. On Tres Reyes Magos --or Three Wise Men, family members exchange gifts, just as Americans do at Christmas.
The three holidays pale in comparison to Pampalona's most famous celebration, San Fermin, which begins on the seventh day of the seventh month, July 7, and continues for seven days.
The holiday begins at noon, when cannons explode, signaling the start of seven days of partying in the streets. The celebration is capped each morning by the release of bulls through Pampalona's main street.
Runners arrive from throughout the world to join in the celebration and run with the bulls, a ritual made famous by author Ernest Hemingway in his novel "The Sun Also Rises."
"My brother was born on July 7 and was named Fermin in honor of the holiday," Reta said. "It's every boy's dream to run with the bulls. When I am old enough (18), I will run with my friends."
In the meantime, Reta is pursuing a water polo career, which he hopes will earn him a college scholarship. He is enrolled in chemistry, literature and algebra, among other courses at El Dorado High School and admits, "The classes are much easier here than they are in Spain."
Reta arrived in the United States in September among thousands of students who come live and learn the American life under certified foreign exchange programs.
Since Reta arrived, he traveled the walk of fame on Sunset Boulevard, where he saw the names of movie stars he has watched on television in Spain, and has vacationed in Lake Tahoe and San Francisco during the four-day Thanksgiving break.
Reta has spent the Christmas holidays writing postcards to friends and family members back home about his new life in California.
"Most of my friends write and ask if I've been surfing or met any blond-haired California girls," he said. "And they all want to know about Hollywood. Mostly, they ask about the weather and the girls."
Reta said competing on El Dorado's water polo team helped him to adjust to living in a new country. He met new friends and was accepted by local players who watched him and were immediately impressed.
Reta was named to the first-team All-Empire League water polo team and was selected to compete in the Orange County all-star game.
"It was a little scary at first, being in a new home with a new family," Reta said. "I miss my family and friends more than I thought I would."
But Reta has adapted quite nicely. He has become a big Michael Jordan fan and watches NBA and NFL games regularly. He has become "a classic channel-changer," regularly wandering through 50 cable channels.
"I've written to my friends that there are 50 channels here, and they can't believe it," Reta said. "Back home, you're lucky if you have eight."