Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has faced criticism over the years for being too guarded and impersonal on the campaign trail.
But on Sunday afternoon in Hudson, N.H., prompted by a voter who asked him to share an experience that had changed his world view, he opened up about how his experience as a Mormon missionary in France had given him an appreciation for the privileges of his upbringing.
Romney – a wealthy former business consultant who has been under fire for offering rival Rick Perry a $10,000 bet in Saturday night's debate – noted that he had grown up "with a great deal of affluence" as the son of an auto executive who became Michigan's three-term governor.
Living on no more than $110 a month in France – which Romney said was the equivalent of $500 or $600 in today's dollars – the former Massachusetts governor said he learned to live simply when he left for France in 1966 at the age of 19, stretching those dollars to cover food, clothing and rent over two and a half years in France. He lived in a series of apartments with little or no plumbing or amenities like refrigeration.
"You're not living high on the hog at that level," he said. "A number of the apartments that I lived in when I was there didn't have toilets – we had instead the little pads on the ground – OK, you know how that works, pull – there was a chain behind you with kind of a bucket, bucket affair. I had not experienced one of those in the United States."
Romney said he and his fellow missionaries showered once a week at a facility where you could pay a few francs to bathe – "Or if we were got lucky, we actually bought a hose and would hold it there on the sink … and wash ourselves that way."
"I lived in a way that people of lower middle income in France lived and I said to myself, 'Wow. I sure am lucky to be born in the United States of America,' " Romney said, adding that he began to appreciate "the freedoms and the gifts that come by virtue of having been in this country."
"I said to myself, 'Gosh, going to school is kind of important, and getting as much education as I can and doing as well as I can is important.' That changed my perspective," he said.
"When I came home I was looking forward to getting an education so I could lift my family and recognize that what I was doing had long term implications."