Real Weddings: Alia and Mark

Inside a minimalist cottage-chic celebration in Port Severn

Mark Cira, a filmmaker, met Alia O’Brien, a musician and anthropologist, in an UberPool in 2017. Five years later, they were married in a minimalist rustic wedding at Mark’s family cottage in Port Severn, Ontario. Here’s how it all came together.

Mark: One weekend in June 2017, I planned to meet some friends at an antique market in Aberfoyle, in Wellington County. I was running 30 minutes behind, so I shouldn’t have ordered a shared ride to the GO station, but I figured, I’m already late—I might as well commit. A few minutes into the ride, we picked up Alia.

Alia: I was heading out with my band on tour in Europe in a few days, so I had a laundry list of things to do before we left. One of them was to get my nails done in Parkdale, which is where I was heading.

Mark: This sounds super cliché, but when Alia got into the car, I felt some electricity in the air. I had a feeling that I was going to see a lot more of her and that our paths would cross again. 

Alia: Mark was asking the driver about fasting for Ramadan and what that entailed. I was taken by how warm he was. I was raised Muslim, and the questions he was asking weren’t judgmental—they came from a place of real curiosity. Mark eventually turned his attention to me, and we started talking. I learned that he was a filmmaker, so at the end of the ride, I asked if there was anywhere I could see his work. I thought that was a good way to lead in to staying in touch. 

Mark: Alia put her contact into my phone in the notes app, where I kept a list of filmmakers and their astrological signs.

Alia: Mark is really into astrology. He correctly guessed my sign—Virgo—based on how busy and caffeinated I was. I had a cup of coffee in my hand when I got into the UberPool. I was also finishing a PhD in ethnomusicology. My focus was on the role sound plays in the spiritual journeys of Muslim groups living in Toronto.

Mark: The next day, I texted Alia to ask her out on a date. She said she was leaving for a month to go on tour but that she would message me when she was back. And she did. I invited her to a show at Civil Liberties, where my friend, trumpet player Michael Louis Johnson, was playing quiet jazz. I knew it wouldn’t be too loud for us to talk.

Alia: When I walked into the bar, Mark was already there. He stood up, and he had this huge smile on his face. I thought, Wow, he’s so open. It’s rare to find someone who’s so emotive. 

Mark: Alia and I talked about everything that night, from our tastes in music to our political and spiritual beliefs to our upbringings—mine in Ontario and Alia’s in Edmonton.

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Alia: We made loose plans to hang out again the next week. I wanted to take him to the bar Thirsty and Miserable, which my friend Katie owns. But, before that could happen, I got sick. And I was scheduled for a front-of-house shift at a Ricky Gervais show at Massey Hall, where I worked part-time. This was pre-Covid, when you were expected to show up to work unless you were on death’s door. I learned that Mark already had plans to go to the show with a friend. 

Mark: When I found out that Alia was sick and that I’d see her at the show, I brought some ginger candies and picked up a tea on my way to Massey Hall. 

Alia: I thought it was really nice. We barely knew each other, but he wasn’t afraid to put himself out there. I kept that ginger candy, so obviously I had an inkling that Mark was special because I was keeping mementos after one date. 

Mark: We finally went on our second date at Thirsty and Miserable. We continued seeing each other a couple of times a week after that. We’d go to movies and concerts and hang out at my place. I lived in a basement apartment just north of Kensington Market. 

Alia: I was just east of Kensington Market. But I had a very small apartment, so we spent most of our time together at Mark’s. Ten months later, in the summer of 2018, I went to Oakland for a two-month immersive language course in Arabic as part of my PhD. Mark agreed to take care of my cat, Maria, while I was away.  

Mark: Maria and I developed a very special relationship. I’d take her for supervised walks in my backyard in the evenings. I think she liked having more space to explore inside too, since my apartment was bigger than Alia’s. Near the end of her trip, I texted her, “I’m getting a little choked up about saying goodbye to Maria. She’s been a good friend.”

Alia: When I got home and brought Maria back to my place, she hid under the couch for days, which is very unlike her. She’s a social cat. I figured she was depressed being away from Mark. A few days later, I brought Maria back to Mark’s, and we both moved in. 

Mark: Being stuck in that little basement apartment was a challenge when Covid hit. I’m an extrovert, so it was really difficult for me not to be around other people. We both struggle with obsessive tendencies, so we made it a goal to keep each other in good spirits as much as possible in those early days. 

Alia: We’d go for daily walks and skate while it was still cold out. We made it fun for each other. Every Friday, Mark made fish and chips and we’d watch The Great British Bake Off. Then, over the weekend, Mark would try baking the cakes or desserts from the show.

Mark: During Covid, we found out how much we enjoyed hanging out with each other. It really cemented our relationship. I would get paranoid about the potential collapse of the world, and Alia would pull me out of it. By May 2020, I was having a conversation with my trumpeter friend, Michael, and I told him that I was thinking of popping the big question. He insisted, “You have to do it. There’s no question.” Once I’d made the decision, I told my friend of 20 years, Nev. She said, “We’ve got to get a ring!” and she and her girlfriend took me to Fair Trade Jewellers on Gerrard. We picked out a white sapphire, which is Alia’s birthstone, in an oval cut on a white gold band. 

Then I had to pick the right day to propose. It took me three months to pick a date that would astrologically align with a good time for us to commit to each other. I decided on August 15, 2020. The moon was conjunct with Venus, which represents love, and the sun was conjunct with Mercury in Leo, which signifies bravery and loyalty and not being afraid of who you are. A ​lot of planets were in what we call their own houses (the sun in Leo, moon in Cancer, Mars in Aries, Saturn in Aquarius and Neptune in Pisces), which is where they express their powers most clearly. It was a once-in-a-million-year occurrence.

Mark: I called Alia’s folks in Edmonton and told them that I wanted to propose there. We’d take a trip to see her family, and then I’d take Alia to a special spot and pop the question. Her mom cried on the phone. She said, “It’s going to be so hard not to show my emotions.” Thankfully she held it together. 

Alia: I am the least literate person when it comes to marriage and engagements. None of this was on my radar. 

Mark: I chose a really cool spot for the proposal. I discovered that the oldest tree in Canada, a limber pine carbon-dated to 3,000 years ago, happened to be 45 minutes away from Alia’s father’s place, in Nordegg. The director in me had it all planned out: we would visit the tree with Alia’s father; her brother, Geoff; and his partner, Emily. 

Alia: On the day of, Geoff and Emily, who are in a band, said they had been asked to be on a podcast, so they couldn’t come. Then my father said he was too tired and gave us the keys to his car to drive there ourselves. Unbeknownst to me, they had planned it all out so that Mark and I would be alone together.

Mark: When we got there, I set up my camera and told Alia I wanted to take a picture of us under the tree, but I secretly pressed record. Then I got down on one knee and said, “I hope our love will last half as long as this tree, and that it will grow with such majesty and beauty.” 

Alia: I immediately started crying. It was a very psychedelic, transcendental moment, especially in the presence of the ancient tree. Of course, I said yes. I was touched by the fact that Mark had so carefully planned it out and involved my family, whom he knows are very important to me. 

Mark: When we got back to town, Alia’s family had sparkling wine ready for us. Alia’s dad lit a bonfire and we celebrated that night. 

Alia: We figured we wouldn’t get married right away because of Covid. At first, we thought about having a small wedding with 50 or 60 people. But, as we started sending out invites, our guest list grew. It’s difficult to keep things small without hurting people’s feelings. We ended up with closer to 90 people. Mark found another good astrological date for the wedding— September 24, 2022—which also happened to be a Saturday. 

Mark: My dad’s side of the family—the Sicilian side—has a cottage in Port Severn, on Georgian Bay. It was the perfect size for an outdoor wedding. We decided to have the ceremony outside and then have dinner under a tent. My brother, Greg, helped me plan the wedding. Many of the vendors were friends of ours. My high school friend Andrew runs a party supply and tent rental business, so he set us up. My friend Mark came up from New York to shoot the wedding, and another friend, Christian, who does the lighting for my films, did our wedding lighting. The wine was selected by my dad and his best friend, who is a sommelier. My mom made a three-tiered, fully-iced cake with pressed flowers along with a monogram.

Alia: We got the flowers from a local farm. They give you bouquets of whatever is in season, and you make the arrangements. We had dahlias and lisianthus, and I supplemented them with some dried eucalyptus and thistle. My brother’s girlfriend, Emily, who did the sound for the wedding, also made the floral arrangements. We commissioned someone Mark’s dad knew to make our wedding altar, an A-frame arch. It was all hands on deck. 

Mark: My dad made all of the cocktails. He and his friends pre-made batches of two signature drinks—a manhattan and a last word. Greg designed a seating chart in a symbolic allegory to the universe. Each table was a planet, and we seated people we associated with that planet around it. At the centre of the tables was the sun, which was our table.

Alia: I got my dress online from Shona Joy. It’s a simple satin long-line dress with a high neck. I also had a cover-up from a local knitter and a second dress that I changed into for the evening from 100% Silk. The second dress cost more than the ceremony dress, but I think I can wear it again.

Mark: I wore a department store white linen suit with a shirt that I borrowed from my brother. I wasn’t too fussed about my outfit. I’m more into the little things, like the Italian leather shoes, Italian silk tie and Alia’s grandfather’s cufflinks that I wore. 

Alia: We got ready in separate rooms in the cottage. We tried to stay out of each other’s way, but we caught glimpses of each other. The ceremony itself was quite short. Michael Louis Johnson was our officiant. He did a land acknowledgement based on information we’d gathered from local Indigenous elders. There were recitations of two excerpts—one by Lebanese American writer Khalil Gibran and another by Persian poet Rumi. I was a little nervous. It’s very intense to bare your heart in front of all of your loved ones. The magnitude of it struck me. I got emotional when we started our vows. It was a battle not to cry.

Mark: I felt very vulnerable. It was almost an out-of-body experience—magical and unreal yet so real at the same time. The sun was descending as we exchanged our vows, and Aquarius was in its midheaven, which represents people being on the same page and working toward shared goals.

Alia: After we were married, our guests went into the tent for cocktails while Mark and I took photos around the property, mostly at the beach and on a rocky outcropping by the water. 

Mark: We timed the ceremony so that we’d get our photos taken right around sunset. 

Alia: The caterer, Feast, was local from Port Severn. They were fantastic. Mark and I are pescatarians, so we had a salmon dish, eggplant parmigiana and sesame-crusted tofu.

My friend Katie did our dinner DJ set, which was ’60s psych and freakbeat. Michael MC’d. He also played his trumpet along with my violinist friend, Laura, to our first dance song, If Not for You by Bob Dylan.

Mark: Our friend Mike did the final DJ set. He did ’70s disco and boogie into the early ’80s. 

Alia: I don’t know what happened, but people were ready to party. My family let loose in a way that I’ve never seen before. Everyone was dancing up a storm, right up until the end of the evening, with huge grins on their faces. It was very entertaining.

Mark: Before the first song ended, there was a conga line of 90 people. 

Alia: Everyone had an amazing time. My favourite moment was looking in through the tent windows from outside and seeing my sittie—my 90-year-old grandma, who flew all the way from Edmonton—bopping to the music at 10 p.m. We had a cut-off time of 1 a.m. because there are other residential properties in the area, and things died down naturally around that time.

Because we took a DIY approach with many people helping out, there was a lot of stress leading up to the wedding. We had to keep track of so many things. But, when it came to pass, everything went really well. We wanted people to feel the love. The goal was to cultivate a positive celebratory atmosphere that everyone could enjoy, and I think we accomplished that. 

Mark: Being married feels the same as before, but with kittens. 

Alia: Sadly, Maria passed away, but we now have two new kittens. 

Mark: Our relationship feels more grounded. 

Alia: The day-to-day feels similar to before. But having everyone observe our vows adds another layer to our commitment.

Cheat Sheet

Date: September 24, 2022
Venue: Mark’s family cottage in Port Severn
Planning: Remneek Kisana
Art direction: Creative Acuity
Officiant: Michael Louis Johnson
Lighting: Christian McKendrick, Mark Cira
Flowers: Sideroad Farm
Makeup: McKenzi Wilson
35mm photography: Mark Sommerfeld
16mm film: Adam Stewart
DJs: Katie Whittaker, Michael Ward
Performances: Michael Louis Johnson, Laura Bates
Catering: Feast Catering & Events
Cake: Helen Cira
Guest favours: Homemade jars of peanut butter (Copperpot Nuts) and jam (John Hughes and Mark Warwick)
Mark’s suit: Incapable Urban
Alia’s dresses: Shona Joy, 100% Silk
Alia’s knit cover-up: Bruised Peach
Tents: D&D Party Rentals
Sound: Emily Bachynski