Brasilia is not usually regarded as one of the world’s beautiful cities. Spawned in 1956 from dusty red-dirt surrounds almost identical to the Australian Outback, the planned capital of Brazil resembles a curved white concrete dystopia in the middle of a desert- a vision perhaps of a future that never eventuated.
The city consists of a complex of zoned blocks, turnpikes and roundabouts designed to keep things efficient. Traffic lights are almost non-existent, and the cars are fast, small, cheap and covered in dust. The central part of the city, home to rows of ministries, domes, bowls and a quasi-futuristic cathedral spaceship, represents all the unique things that genius architect Oscar Niemeyer realised you could do with concrete. The people are either cheerful and friendly or determined to mug you, depending on who you come across, though there are less of the latter than you might find elsewhere in Brazil.
But it was perhaps the last place on Earth I ever expected to get married.
Then again, life is full of surprises. I have to admit, that when I pictured getting married in Brazil, the tradeoff for my wife moving to Australia to live with me, I always pictured Rio. I pictured some ornate little church in the middle of a romantic mountainside neighbourhood, probably filled by a bunch of faded gold leaf, or the top of a jungle-covered misty mountain overlooking the Atlantic. My wife however was insisting on Brasilia, her hometown, and every guy knows you don’t mess with a woman with wedding plans.
And luckily, the Santuario Dom Bosco turned out to be one of life’s best surprises. Our previous options had included the Brasilia Cathedral, but it’s warped spaceship figure and impressive interior didn’t gel with my personal sense of feng shui. But when we saw Dom Bosco, we both knew that was the building we were going to get married in. This was the place.
Appearing from the outside (as my friend Gav said before the wedding) like “a concrete X-box”, Dom Bosco is proof you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. On entering the heavy-set sculpted metal doors, you enter a realm bathed in heavenly blue light. The entire interior is surrounded by windows made of small squares of stained glass in 12 different shades of blue, designed by Claudio Naves and manufactured by Belgian artist Hubert Van Doorne in São Paulo. An enormous Murano glass chandelier, made from over 7000 pieces of glass and lit by sodium-vapour hangs from the ceiling. I have been to Cathedrals large and small all over the world and there is nothing that equals Dom Bosco in spectacle or uniqueness. The sight is one of the wonders of the world, and nobody even knows about it.
There was just one problem with our determination to wed there. Dom Bosco is a Catholic church, and neither of us were Catholic. In fact, I am not baptised at all, and despite being awed by religious architecture have barely glanced at a religious text my entire life. My nether regions remain pleasantly unmutilated. Convincing the religious authorities to let us use their building to throw a ceremony was going to be quite a quest. And it began in Sydney.
In brief, my father-in-law’s friendship with the Apostolic Nuncio to Panama helped us to get in touch with the Apostolic Nuncio to Canberra (basically the Vatican’s Ambassador to Australia). He, in turn, put us in touch with a charismatic Irish priest and philosopher residing at St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney. Father Seamus told us he was quite concerned when first contacted by the Nuncio, since such contact normally entails either big trouble or a promotion to Bishophood “and I knew I wasn’t going to be Bishop”. He promised us we’d be the “fastest flying Catholics on wheels”, which was a good thing since the wedding was less than 6 months away.
As it turned out, I never ended up a Catholic (much to the relief of my staunchly irreligious father, who was strongly opposed). I think Father Seamus considered me “too far gone” given the time we had available. My fiance, whom I usually refer to as “Babs” given she shirks the spotlight, was baptised Anglican and so our transformation focused on her.
We met regularly with Father Seamus for several months to discuss religion. We arrived dreading boredom, but I was surprised to find the discussions extremely interesting. Brendan had a degree in philosophy, and together with my background in science and natural philosophy, there were many fundamental discussions of humanity and the cosmos. He was always up for a philosophical argument and a laugh, and we got along well. We met in the residence of Cardinal George Pell, who at the time was assisting the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Child Abuse in Australia. Recently he moved to the Vatican with the Pope. At one point during our meetings the Cardinal himself burst in to investigate the origin of the animated discussion taking place inside. He apologised and left. I can only laugh now to think of the surprises life throws up sometimes, and all this to a boy never baptised.
We’ve since become quite friendly with Father Seamus and he was even invited to my surprise birthday bash at a cinema bar in Sydney. My surprise party was typical of the colour that Babs has brought to my life – it was by far the most confusing experience of my life to date. On the pretext of a movie date we went to the local cinema where I was surprised to find several friends from the other side of Sydney at the bar. “What on earth are you doing here?” I asked indignantly. “You know I live just around the corner right? Where was my phone call?” Over the next 30 minutes, various work colleagues and cousins showed up until I was 99% sure that this could not be mere coincidence. Unbeknownst to me, Father Seamus arrived on a bus at the cinema but was unable to find the bar and went home. This is a pity, as the only thing that could have made the gathering of acquaintances more eclectic would have been the addition of a Catholic priest!
Given the Church’s concern over modern divorce rates, we were also required to sit a 3-week “marriage preparation” course. I expected maybe a priest lecturing us about family planning to avoid abortions and the like. And again my trepidation was misplaced – the instructor was a qualified marriage counsellor who regularly used the Lord’s name in vain, provided peppermints at each evening’s session and was passionate about the psychology of men and women.
And so it happened that after some ceremonial to-ings and fro-ings and some awkward international phone conversations with priests speaking different languages and my in-laws translating, we were allowed to book our wedding date at Dom Bosco.
Brasilia might be a weird and wonderful place, so imagine it all of a sudden filled with all your closest friends and family. Travel, with all its attendant attacks on the comfort zone, can a disconcerting beast. But even more disconcerting is to have your entire comfort zone shipped in from overseas. Truth be told, I think it’s the strangest, best party possible. We had a similar situation a couple years back in Thailand- my friend Scott got married and with the crew we ended up with there the whole two weeks there were just a blast. This time the attention was on us and it was mind boggling- incessant text messages from folks asking us where to go, where to meet, asking about accommodation, missed flights, it was endless and unrelenting but at the same time incredible.
The trip began for us experiencing the World Cup Finals in Rio de Janeiro and visiting family. After moving the show to Brasilia, the party began with hens and bucks nights- the guys enjoying meat and beer at a churrascaria (Brazilian barbeque house) and the girls a local Forro dance (a type of Brazilian folk dance). We also organised a sightseeing trip around the city, which provoked as much confusion and curiosity in our guests as it had for me seeing it for the first time several years earlier.
The wedding rehearsal at the church the night before ended up more of a party than anything else, the plans descending into chaos and good cheer, but the wedding the following morning went off without a hitch anyway. A bit husky from a lingering chest infection, the groomsmen bought me beer and peppermints so I’d be able to function properly. Meanwhile, the girls had their hair and makeup expertly styled by a man named Stephanny.
Dom Bosco was all dolled up with stunning flowers, trumpeters and sunshine. My uncle Rob served as wedding photographer, and after the ceremony we headed out in our car driven by “The Jackal” (my uncle’s nickname for our sinister-looking but very nice driver) for the obligatory photoshoot. Among other concretey landmarks, we managed to get some shots inside the Itamaraty (Foreign Ministry), which has some beautiful sculpted marble walls and staircases. We also took some shots in the beautiful garden at Stephanny’s house. Babs took the opportunity to have her hair re-styled for the reception, and after some time taking a much needed breather, we realised we better get to the reception lest we miss it.
My inlaws property, on the outskirts of the city, was the splendid location for the party. It’s all a bit of a blur now- the embarrassing speeches, slideshows, bouquet tossing and general merriment washed away by a sea of attention from well-wishers and glasses of wine. We reprised the occasion the next day with a recovery churrasco in the sun, a more relaxed affair over beers, the pool, and barbecued meat. And then one by one the guests were all gone, and the whole thing felt like it must have been a dream, and Brasilia was once again the strange city I stared at wide-eyed and bemused.
But now I’ll never have to explain it again to our nearest and dearest. We were filled with love and awe for those who travelled halfway around the world in order to witness our love for each other. Saúde!
Have you ever found love in a strange place?